FROM THE PBC VAULTS:
The Okeechobee Waterway opens up a little-known chapter in the book on southern cruising in Florida.
By Michel Gilbert & Danielle Alary
When most people think about cruising Florida, they imagine the Keys, the Intracoastal Waterway or the Gulf of Mexico. But there is another route that few boaters take – and it’s the best-kept secret in the Sunshine State.
We started off with a simple question. How could we find a Pleasant cruising destination suitable for novice charterers? What’s more, it had to be accessible by car from our home and allow us to experience the thrill of discovery without having to brave galeforce ocean winds.
- One of the many locks along the route.
To find the answer we looked at the map of the North American continent and started searching. We wanted a warm destination since we were going to cruise in late March.
Our final choice was Florida, but the exact destination was not a household name in chartering destinations. Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal are not exactly the capital of boat chartering. Yet there is something very special about this route, otherwise known as the Okeechobee Waterway.
A Boater’s Dream in Florida
Having the opportunity to charter a boat and operate it in a controlled environment is a new adventure, especially for those boaters who have paid their dues, received the proper navigation education and cruised home waters. For boaters with enough experience, who have handled larger units (in the 28- to 40-foot range), coming to Florida to experience a cross-state trip might be the next logical step.
The Okeechobee Waterway (OW) was built in 1937 by the US Army Corps of Engineers to connect the east and west coasts of Florida through Lake Okeechobee, the second largest fresh water lake in the United States at 730 square miles. At 152 miles from end to end, the OW can be explored in a week.
You may even want to bring your own boat down since there are marinas and campgrounds all along the OW. However, making such a trip is the perfect reason to experience liveaboard units, either motoryachts or trawlers. The latter is a good choice since you cannot cruise the OW at 60 mph and there is no reason to do so.
Choosing A Florida Charter Company
Choosing a charter company is simple, yet you must take the time to make a selection based on the operator’s experience and service level offered. You can always look in the classified ads to find an individual willing to rent his prized possession, but your best bet is to contact a well established charter outfit. Well-known charter companies have a consistent track record and, since they own or operate a number of units, should a major problem occur with the boat of your choice, they would be in a position to make arrangements to replace the unit, without cutting your vacation short.
These operators also have mechanics and speed boats at their disposal to help you in case an emergency arises. Also, fleet maintenance is done on a preventative basis, which helps reduce or eliminate the number of potential breakdowns.
If you can, check with friends or ask for credentials provided by the charter company.
If you do not have the experience or skills necessary to skipper your own boat, many companies offer courses, either group or private, that can help you get proper qualification.
When you fill in the charter company form detailing your boating background, always tell the truth about your experience or navigational knowledge. It will help you avoid trouble. For example, if you lie about your skills, insurance coverage might be voided in case of an accident. Worse still, you can put you and your passengers at risk. Besides, experienced charter company representatives can quickly identify inexperienced boaters.
Do not hesitate to ask questions. Before you cast the lines, the charter operator will brief you on the boat and on the cruising grounds. Listen carefully and raise any question that comes to your mind. Pretending you know everything is a recipe for disaster. There is no stupid question and the operator will appreciate if you tell him/her that you are unfamiliar with some systems and need a refresher.
- Just one of several marine services.
Ask about proper anchoring/mooring procedures for the area.
One company that has a lot of experience in the area we planned to charter is South Florida Yachts (SFY- www.swfyachts.com). Owners Vic and Barbara Hansen have been in the business for over 20 years and they specialize in Florida’s west coast and Okeechobee Waterway charters. At the time of this article, their powerboat fleet encompassed 11 units, ranging from 32 to 42 leet. motoryachts or trawlers.
For two people, the Grand Banks 32 Classic Trawler is the perfect choice. With a single Lehman 90 hp engine, she cruises at 5-7 knots, burning less than 2 gph. With this boat you can spend a week cruising the OW for less than $300 worth of fuel!
Those who want more power could choose a motoryacht like the Bayliner 3988 that reaches 10-20 knots at 10 gph. Such power is probably overkill for the Okeechobee Waterway, considering the number of locks and relatively short distances between stops.
Air conditioning is a must for such a trip and all of South Florida Yachts units are so equipped.
Based on Barb Hansen’s suggestion, we chose an itinerary that would bring us from Fort Myers to Stuart in three days. This gave us a one-day buffer during a seven-day cruise.
Leaving South Florida Yachts’ base located near the Caloosahatchee Bridge at ICW marker 52, we headed east towards La Belle, a small community with docking space, about 20 miles away. Halfway through this leg, we passed the W.P. Franklin lock. With an early morning departure, this is a nice spot to have lunch at a nearby anchorage. There are even picnic tables on the shore.
Since the locks close for scheduled maintenance, your best option is to inquire before making your final arrangements for the trip. You can call the Corps of Engineers at 813-983-8101 or 904-791-2539.
When navigating, you have to call the lock master in advance to ask which side of the boat to put your fenders. Going east usually means fenders to the starboard side and vice versa.
You will also need all the boat’s documentation for the lock master. The entire locking procedure takes roughly 15 to 20 minutes. There are many drawbridges along the way but they open on demand during normal operating hours.
Leaving the W.P. Franklin lock, we continued at a leisurely pace, passing villages like Owanita, Alva and Denaud. A good piece of advice is to avoid cruising here during national holidays and popular vacation “windows” since portions of the route can get crowded.
When charting your course, take into account the waiting time at the lock and build in some extra time to allow for normal delays due to traffic and other unforeseen surprises. It is always best to arrive at your destination when the sun is still high above the horizon. It disappears quite rapidly in the South so plan to be at anchor/dock at least 45 to 60 minutes before sunset.
For our trip, we decided to charter the Grand Banks trawler, slowly cruising along, mile by mile releasing the stress of our normally hectic everyday workplace.
The salon/dining area IS surrounded by windows. You can sit, sipping a cold drink, and simply admire the view or enjoy the scenery from the flybridge. And, believe it, nothing beats the smooth taste of an ice-cold beer at the end of a warm day once the boat is secured and the barbecue is just a few minutes away!
On the second morning, a 6:30 departure brought us to Ortano, the second lock, quite early. Fifty feet wide and 280 feet long, the lock can accommodate numerous boats (as can all the locks on the waterway). Most cruising guides suggest it is better not to be the first or the last boat to avoid turbulence during the operation of the lock.
Between La Belle and Ortona lock, we opted for a non-stop leg of our trek since we had to pass the third lock at Moore Haven. We needed to reach this town before or at noon because we had to make our ”big decision” during lunch hour!
Lake Okeechobee (from the Seminole Indian word meaning “Big Water”)is a vast expanse of water, 33 miles from north to south and 30 miles from east to west. It is a wildlife paradise as well as the most important source of fresh water for South Florida residents. Lake level is critical to the economy of the State.
Docked at the Moore Haven city docks, we had plenty of time to weigh the alternatives that lay in front of us. There were two ways we could cross Lake Okeechobee. First was the direct, open lake route, a 39-mile trip that meant sleeping in Moote Fiaven and spending most of the next day cruising on the lake. The other option involved cruising the rim canal, a 5O-mile journey that can be broken into shorter segments since there are towns on the way where we could spend the night.
Barb Hansen’s suggestion was to take the rim canal route. This allowed us to spend the night in Clewiston, a small town located roughly 10 miles from Moore Haven. Dropping the anchor in Clewiston means an early arrival, well before sunset. An interesting fact about Clewiston: this village was built by the U.S. Sugar company. It’s worth spending some time ashore to sample the local cuisine.
There are two other benefits to the southern route. Being a canal, it is well protected, should the wind decide to wreak havoc on the lake. It is marginally longer than the openlake route and gives you more of a chance to observe wildlife as you make your way along the banks of this incredibly rich area.
The scenery is beautiful, with moss-draped live oaks hiding sable palms. The range of wildlife here, and along the Okeechobee Waterway, ranges from alligators, turtles and snakes to wild birds such as ibis, herons cormorants and herons. You might even spot an eagle nesting in the high trees or the occasional manatee.
Fishing, too, is great. Lake Okeechobee is renown for its largemouth bass and the famous Okeechobee catfish as well as black crappie. Even tarpon and snook travel to the W.P. Franklin and St. Lucie locks.
Up before dawn, we revved up the engine and made our way at 6 knots, pace that would put us in Stuart late that clay. En route to our destination we encountered the Port Mayaca lock which marks the end of the lake segment.
- One of many sights in Stuart, Florida.
Following this interlude, we meandered to the St. Lucie lock, the last one before our destination and turning Point, Stuart.
Spending a full day in the Stuart/St. Lucie area or taking a short cruise to the coast before embarking on the return trip is a good idea. This gives the crew a chance to relax and enjoy the area before heading back.
7 Is Good, 10 Is Even Better
As you can see it is possible to cross Okeechobee Waterway and come back in a week. But, if you want more free time, extending your stay to l0 days is even better. This gives everyone the chance to visit more villages along the way or simply enjoy a longer cruise at a slower pace.
On the return trip, taking the open-lake route saves l0 miles and brings another view of this fresh water “ocean.” Cast a line along the way and you might catch some delicacy to eat for dinner.
Cruising the Okeechobee Waterway with your own boat or a charter unit is the perfect way to see the “other” Florida, this is a unique experience, very well suited for a family vacation without the fear or anxiety of the open sea.
So, next time you consider a trip to Florida, buy a copy of the Southern Waterway Guide and plan a cruise that will be a unique memory and a lifetime experience.
Important Florida phone numbers
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Florida Operations office 863-983-8101
W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam 239-694-5451
Ortona Lock and Dam 863-675-0616
Julian Keen Jr. Lock 863-946-0414
Port Mayaca Lock and Dam 561-924-2858
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