Ferry provides adventure en route to fort

DRY TORTUGAS, Fla. — Located 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote national parks in the United States. It is only accessible by two ferry services based in Key West. One service, the Yankee Freedom II, offers a safe and fun experience that extends much further than what is expected of a ferry.

“I’ve always been a devotee of adventure travel,” said Yankee Freedom II General Manager Terry Strickland. “Although we take the risk out of the journey, the destination is one that provides inspiration and memories but yet is only experienced by a relatively few number of people.”

Click on the video to see a slideshow  narrated by writer Nina Markowitz about the Yankee Freedom II’s trip to Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park.

A large catamaran, the Yankee Freedom II offers two floors including an inside cabin and a top deck with outdoor cocktail bar. A ticket on the Yankee Freedom II includes breakfast and lunch, which is served buffet-style from a snack bar located in the cabin. It also includes a tour of Fort Jefferson and use of snorkeling gear. A one-way trip between Key West and the Dry Tortugas takes about two and one-half hours.

The immersion in nature and wildlife starts as soon as the Yankee Freedom II departs from Key West.

“We have a very large foredeck which makes a great place for sightseeing and observing marine life,” Strickland said.

At right, passengers board the Yankee Freedom II at Key West’s Lands End Marina (Photos by Nina Markowitz). Below, in order, tourists gaze at the ocean through a second-floor opening of Fort Jefferson. Next, Rebecca D’Alessio leads a tour group atop Fort Jefferson. The sparkling waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas offer a reminder of the remoteness of the islands. Next, a view of Fort Jefferson on Green Key, as seen from the Yankee Freedom II upon departure. Next, the moat walk, now used as a water pathway, lining one side of Fort Jefferson. Bottom, a view of the Yankee Freedom II at its dock at Fort Jefferson.

On the amenities his boat offers, he adds, “This is the Keys. You can’t underestimate the importance of our two full liquor bars.”

The boat itself is suitable for carrying up to 250 passengers. However, the Yankee Freedom II limits its capacity at 100 for the comfort of customers.

“It was cool to try this once,” said passenger Emily Kaye, 21. Kaye and her husband, Thaxton, 26, chose to spend their honeymoon in Key West. A trip to the Dry Tortugas on the Yankee Freedom II was on their must-do list.

“I’ve never really been on a boat, it was my first time,” Kaye said. “It was fun.”

For the duration of the boat ride both to and from the Dry Tortugas, tour guide Rebecca D’Alessio narrates the trip.

She points out scenery and nearby islands, and even tells stories of sunken ships and treasure hunts.

Once the catamaran hits open water, D’Alessio plays educational and entertaining movies on televisions throughout the cabin.

“I have a movie on national parks, on treasure hunts, on the Florida wildlife,” D’Alessio said. “They provide good information, but they’re also for entertainment.”

The crew’s friendliness and preparedness comes in handy, especially in crises typical of a boat ride on the high seas.

“Our crew is universally admired for their friendliness and professionalism,” Strickland said. “This is clear when the seas are up and folks are experiencing discomfort. Those having the hardest time always turn in the most glowing comments on how the crew helped them.”

When rough seas are present, crew members hand out sick bags and ginger ale. They are also there to assist seasick passengers with reassurance and even do so with a little humor.

“If you start to feel the motion of the ocean, don’t go into one of the bathrooms,” announced Capt. Rick Gauron over the boat’s PA system. “Flag down a crew member and we’ll get you outside on the deck.”

More tips for finding your sea legs: keep an eye on the horizon to steady yourself and it’s best to be out in the fresh air. Also, the back of the boat on the main floor tends to be steadier than the front or on a higher level.

Once making landfall on Green Key of the Dry Tortugas islands, the Yankee Freedom II provides a tour guide who offers a 45-minute tour of Fort Jefferson. The guide, D’Alessio, leads the group around and inside the fort, detailing key events and facts.

One fun tour fact: “Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the hemisphere,” said D’Alessio.

The structure, she said, contains more than 16 million bricks.

After the tour, it is time for lunch. Yankee Freedom II patrons re-board the boat to enjoy a lunch spread that includes bags of potato chips, cookies and fruit salad. Along with several types of sandwich breads, meats and fixings, the lunch spread is perfect for a day on the go.

The breakfast provided is equally as suitable; offering bagels, cereal, yogurt and juice- all of which is notably fresh.

Snorkeling gear is also included with ferry fare and is handed out on the ride to the Dry Tortugas.

Literature stocked in the passenger seating areas detail key snorkeling areas around the park. Yet by walking the perimeter of the top of the fort, or of the brick moat wall surrounding it, one can also fish-gaze without taking the plunge.

The Yankee Freedom II docks at Green Key, home of Fort Jefferson, for a total of four and-one-half hours. In this time, patrons are free to wander the park, sun on the beach, snorkel or so whatever they please on or off the boat.

Yet, because the Dry Tortugas is a national park, it is important to abide by the strict rules and regulations of the National Park Service. One such rule designed for preservation for future visitors prevents any item, naturally occurring or otherwise, to be removed. This is important to keep in mind when admiring the beautiful conch shells and corals washed up on the shore.

“National parks provided an important example of responsible environmental stewardship to a word that was literally steamrolling toward a bleak future,” Strickland said. “[In the Dry Tortugas,] there is always something new to see under the water or in the air.”

If time allows, the Yankee Freedom II takes a slight detour on the ride home to pass by Hospital Key, where many birds nest. This provides a great opportunity for last-minute nature gazing from the comfort of the boat.

Bird watching in the Dry Tortugas is one of its biggest draws, and many travel upon the Yankee Freedom II for that reason alone.

“We have a lot of repeat customers, many of them birdwatchers,” Strickland said. “They come every year.”

The Yankee Freedom II is more than a ferry service. It provides a full day of fun, entertainment and activity based around visiting one of the most isolated National Parks: the Dry Tortugas. From boarding at 8 a.m. to disembarking at 5:30 p.m., it is truly an experience not to be forgotten.

Another thing not to be forgotten? To prepare well for the adventure.

“I took Dramamine before I got on, so I had fun,” Kaye said. “I saw lots of people who didn’t, though.”

If You Go:

  • One adult ticket: $160, plus $5 park entrance fee.
  • One child ticket, under 16: $120, plus $5 park entrance fee.
  • One student/military/senior ticket: $150, plus $5 park entrance fee.
  • Camping reservations are also available at an additional charge.
  • Check in time: 7 a.m.
  • Boarding time: 7:30 a.m.
  • Departure time: 8 a.m., arrival in Dry Tortugas: 10:30 a.m.
  • Departure from Dry Tortugas: 3 p.m., arrival in Key West: 5:30 p.m.
  • For more information, call 800-634-0939 or go to




Ferry manager appreciates value of national parks

DRY TORTUGAS, Fla. — Providing far more than transportation, the Yankee Freedom II creates a full day of adventure. From snorkeling gear to breakfast and lunch, they have thought of every detail and provided every amenity.

General Manager Terry Strickland makes it a priority to ensure the Yankee Freedom II is the ferry of choice.

“Since there is currently only one other ferry running to the park, the comparison is pretty direct and it boils mainly down to comfort,” he said. “The Yankee is a larger, stable platform with a variety of enclosed and open air areas that allow our guests to pick their preferred environments.”

Strickland has held a series of jobs in Key West’s tourism industry, including once driving the historic Conch Tour Train. But it his current job with the Yankee Freedom II, bringing people to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which means the most to him.

“National parks remind us of where we have been as a nation and what was important to us as we grew,” he said. “[They remind us] of the humility with which we should view our position in nature and the responsibilities that we have to take care of our home.”

As a national park, the Dry Tortugas’ remote location keeps visitor numbers low. But the amazing Fort Jefferson, a 16-million brick mass atop of Green Key, is a grandiose structure begging to be seen. It is the biggest masonry achievement in the hemisphere.

“The sense of wonder… begins when on approach, Fort Jefferson rises from the empty sea like a brick Flying Dutchman in a scene from every boy’s pirate fantasies,” Strickland said. “It continues when contemplating the sheer audacity of man’s ambition to create this massive structure in the face of so many obstacles and given the technology, or lack thereof.”

Strickland feels that his job as general manager on the Yankee Freedom II has allowed him to make his experiences with Fort Jefferson, and the rest of the Dry Tortugas, accessible to many visitors.

“It comes naturally to me to proselytize about visiting the Dry Tortugas and I find it very satisfying to play a part in enabling people to do so.”

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