Traversing the Okeechobee Waterway – A Sailor’s Guide

A few years ago, My husband Skip and I crossed Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway from Stuart on the east coast to Fort Myers on the west coast. The good news is that the crossing was uneventful. The bad news is that the crossing was uneventful, which means that I have no dramatic tale to tell. However, having become a big fan of the waterway as a result of the crossing, I want to go on record with my two cents, as undramatic as those two cents may be.

Perhaps it was my proximity to Orlando that prompted me to think of the Okeechobee Waterway asan EPCOT Center version of the Panama Canal (which I have crossed several times on small sailboats). The trip followed the same steps: Locking up to lake level; traversing the lake; and then locking back down to sea level. The locks were smaller, the water hazards far less, and there were not enormous cargo ships or cruiser liners going through with us. For me, transiting the Okeechobee Waterway was like going through the Panama Canal Zone again, with all of the fun and none of the risks.

There are a few issues to consider when contemplating a passage across the waterway. The fixed bridge just east of Port Mayaca Lock (on the eastern side of the lake) poses a challenge to some vessels. It has a clearance of 49 feet when the channel is at its normal depth, which keeps many sailboats from using the waterway for a cross-Florida passage. Several sailing acquaintances have availed themselves of the services of nearby Indiantown Marina, which does a very professional and able job of tilting a vessel to clear the bridge (cost of the service as of September 2003 is $100). Other fixed bridges along the waterway are in the 53- to 55-foot range.

Controlling depth and status of maintenance activities are other issues to consider when contemplating a passage through the waterway. We were able to check controlling depth on the Internet at the Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District web site and found it quoted at 15 feet. Because we had been advised that the Corps of Engineers sometimes shuts down portions of the waterway for maintenance during the summer months, we inquired about maintenance plans via email to the Corps of Engineers office and received a response within a week-this year, there was no maintenance planned, so we were good to go.

We departed Stuart on a hot muggy morning in the latter part of May. The St. Lucie River soon morphed into a tree-lined canal cut and we reached St. Lucie Lock (Mile 15) in good time. Our first lock experience taught us the basic drill:

  1. Hail the lock keeper on VHF radio (Ch. 13) to announce your approach and get instructions.
  2. Either wait until the lock gates open to enter, or proceed directly into the chamber if accessible.
  3. Edge up to the left side of the chamber and grab one of the lines hanging over the side, then act as human fenders as the water level rises or falls (depending on which side of the waterway you are on).
  4. When the lock gates re-open, exit at a sedate pace, waving and yelling (or radioing) a thank-you to the lock keeper as you leave.

We stopped for the night at Indiantown Marina, one of several friendly boating concerns along the waterway, and were off the next morning in good time to make it through Port Mayaca Lock (Mile 37) and across the lake before settling in for the night. Our passage was windless and calm, so even though we were disappointed that we couldn’t sail, we did not have to cope with the choppy waves that easily form when winds pass over the lake’s shallow waters-so we didn’t complain. A single hander friend of mine wasn’t so lucky on his passage of the lake a few years ago; he said that getting across Okeechobee was harder and more uncomfortable than any part of his passage from New Zealand to California!

We settled for the night alongside the dock at Roland Martin’s Marina in Clewiston, on the south shore of the lake. Nehalennia stuck out like an alien in the string of power boats; it was the first time I have ever been the only sailboat in a marina! But no matter…we met some very nice folks, took a dip in the pool, and watched the water birds pace the riprap across the channel from us, searching for their evening meal, while we sipped our drinks in the cockpit.

Day 3 took us through Moore Haven Lock (Mile 78) and into the Caloosahatchee Canal, on the “downhill run” to the sea. We went through Ortona Lock at Mile 94, then stopped for the night in La Belle, tied up at the dock of the funky River’s Edge Motel for twenty-five cents per foot. Interesting little town, La Belle-we’ll have to return someday to look around a bit more.

We were off right after breakfast on our fourth day out from Stuart, and the canal cut morphed back into river again, every scenic and serene. We spotted an alligator along the bank at one point, but were disappointed in our search for manatees. Returning to sea level at Franklin Lock (Mile 121), we left the quiet waters of the rivers and canals for the busier thoroughfares of the Fort Myers area, which we traversed in favor of tying up in Cape Coral at Tarpon Point Marina. And so ended our transit of the Okeechobee Waterway.

See what I mean? The trip was uneventful. I am certainly not complaining…and I recommend that anyone traveling to and around Florida consider the Okeechobee as a possible route in the itinerary. As long as you pay attention to the issues I noted above to make sure the boat can make it through, and watch the weather when crossing the lake, I am sure you will have a pleasant trip!