The history of shipwrecks and an immense brick fortification built to protect a strategic channel is shrouded with many mysteries on land and at the bottom of the sea that draws visitors from around the globe to Dry Tortugas National Park.
This intrigue, and rich cultural heritage, begins with the location of this park, 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The seven keys (Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) collectively known as the Dry Tortugas, are situated on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean that has been used by all manner of ships.
Hundreds of ships wrecked, were stranded, or sustained causalities since its discovery in 1513, as this strategic location also carried with it many hazards. Many 100s of years of transiting this shipping channel without sonar and current safety technology made this area a resting place for many ships as well as the ballast cast off in desperate attempts to lighten the ships load and make it through this treacherous channel.
Though the seafaring may not have known it in the 1500s, seasonal changes increased the risk of traversing the channels through the Dry Tortugas. Water levels are much lower during the dry season increasing the potential for wreckage. Storms, hurricanes, strong currents, winds, and other inclement weather patterns during the wet season increased the risk of wreckage. Inaccuracies in navigation charts, technical problems, and human errors also contributed to the demise of many a ship.
All these historic remains on the bottom of the sea make the Dry Tortugas one of the most interesting dive and snorkel destinations in the Gulf of Mexico. The Windjammer site is one of the most popular of these wrecks. The Windjammer is also known as “Steel Wreck,” “Dutch Wreck” and “French Wreck.” It is an iron-hulled ship-rigged sailing vessel known as the Avanti that has become home to all sorts of marine life over the centuries.
The Windjammer has an interesting history. In 1875, John Reid & Co. constructed the ship, originally named the Killean, in Port Glasgow, Scotland. The first owners of the Killean, Mackinnon, Frew & Co. sold the vessel to Antoine-Dominique Bordes & Fils of Dunkirk, France, in 1893, which promptly renamed it the Antonin after the owner’s son. Although there is no historical evidence, it is safe to assume that at this time the vessel was employed in the Chilean nitrate fertilizer trade, as Bordes & Fils was one of the major participants in this industry. When Bordes & Fils purchased a larger, more economical ship in 1901, the Antonin was sold to a Norwegian company, Acties Avanti, owned by partners C. Zernichow & O. Gotaas. The new owners renamed it Avanti and sent the vessel to Pensacola where the burgeoning lumber export industry was in desperate need of transport ships to carry cargo around the Caribbean.
On January 9, 1907 the Avanti departed Pensacola bound for Uruguay with the intent to pass around the Dry Tortugas. A navigational error would cause this to be the Avanti’s final voyage. In the dark, early morning of January 21, 1907, heavy winter wind and waves buffeted the Norwegian ship Avanti. At 6:44 am, thirty-two years to the day after its maiden voyage, the ship struck Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas. The iron hull, nearly the length of a football field, scraped along the jagged coral reef with a sickening sound. Howling winds muffled the cries of the 19-man crew as they frantically tried to save their dying vessel. Losing the port anchor in an attempt to slow the ship’s movement, the crew became desperate. Unsure of the holding power of the windlass, the anchor cable was brought out of the forecastle and wrapped around the starboard bits. Taking on water and inching deeper into the rumbling seas, the remaining anchor was dropped to prevent the vessel from slipping off into deeper water and sinking. Heavily damaged and stranded, the ship eventually broke apart. Though the crew was saved and much of the cargo later salvaged, the Avanti was a complete loss.
The ship’s design was a combination of traditional architectural lines with newer, more durable building materials. The ship was 261 feet long by 39 feet wide with three masts, two decks and cement ballast. The birth of steam propulsion would eventually cause the age of sail to rapidly end. Large sailing vessels like the Avanti were to be the last tall ships built during the Romantic Age of sail.
Today the wreck offers marine enthusiasts a haunting glimpse of a once-proud sailing vessel. The “Windjammer Wreck”, as the Avanti has come to be called, is located less than a mile southwest of Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park. The Avanti is in excellent condition as a result of iron’s resistance to corrosion. Fish and marine fauna are highly visible at the wreck that has made it a popular dive site. There are two main wreckage fields with the bow section oriented east-west and the stern section aligned north-south. The wreck site lies in 18-21 feet of water, with mooring buoys provided for resource protection and visitor convenience.
Linda Friar is Chief of Public Affairs for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. All photos courtesy Brett Seymour, NPS Submerged Resources.