CROSSING THE OKEECHOBEE Written by J. J. Brady and Gerald Dake
Photos by Tamsin Saphir Joyce and Jim Brady and Gerald Dake

web version text~ only no photo's

From Stuart, Florida, we launched the boats into the south fork of the St. Lucie River. The morning greeted us with typical April weather - blue skies, puffy white clouds, low humidity and a gentle easterly breeze - perfect boating weather. As we made our way into the St. Lucie Canal, the sun danced off the bows of the boats and sparkled in the rippled of the water - life just doesn’t get much better than this!

Our group included Bill and Kay Joslyn, owners of “Special K”, a beautiful 1941 Chris Craft, 25 foot Sportsman Utility, with crew members, Jim and Joyce Brady, and Gerald Dake, owner of “Odyssey” a gorgeous 1947 Chris Craft, 22 foot Sportsman Utility, with crew members, Joel and Tamsin Saphir.

The Okeechobee Waterway consists of three sections. On the east, the St. Lucie River and Canal runs for 38 miles, leading to Lake Okeechobee, named by the Seminole Indians and translated to mean “teeming big water”. Following the southerly route, Lake Okeechobee is 26 miles across, entering into the Caloosahatchee Canal and River which runs for 97 statute miles to Fort Myers and on for another 5 miles, where it intersects with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Leaving Stuart, the St. Lucie River is heavily developed with large waterfront homes, but the urban area soon gives way to the beauty of rural Florida. The landscape varied from farmland, complete with horses and cows grazing along the banks of the shore, to natural woodlands and marshes. Interspersed along the way are RV parks, occasional fish camps and small marinas offering gas, bait and snacks. There were no restaurants along the waterway, it is prudent to pack a picnic lunch and have refreshments on board.

The water level in Lake Okeechobee is approximately 20 feet higher than anywhere along the waterway; therefore, you ascend into the lake and descend as you lock out of the lake. The locking process is a fairly simple one. As you approach the lock you must contact the lockmaster by radio either on channel 13 or 16 or sound two short horn blasts to convey your intentions to lock through. You wait at the arrival area for the green light to proceed into the lock and once inside, you will accept a bow and a stern line either handed or dropped to you by the lockmaster. The Lockmaster will indicate to you where in the lock he wants to place you. Smaller boats are usually not placed close to the doors due to turbulence during the water transfer.

The Lockmasters are a helpful group, but you need to realize that you are on your own once the locking process begins. A pair of work gloves comes in handy to protect your hands from the wall of the lock. Fenders are a necessity and Bill Joslyn fashioned a set of throw-a-way fenders out of foam insulation encapsulated in tubes of carpet which were hung over the side between the boat and the cement wall of the lock. The lock walls are not the cleanest things to have rubbing on your white docking fenders.

The whole procedure, once inside the lock, usually takes less than fifteen minutes to complete. During this time, our woodies commanded the attention of other boat crews and the usual questions were asked about the boats - what year was it built, what kind of engine does it have, did you do all the restoration by yourself, in addition to many compliments. It is fun to converse with other boating enthusiasts and realize what a small world it is. During our first lock experience, Joel and Tamsin struck a conversation with a complete stranger who just had lunch with a friend of theirs that they planned to dine with the following week. In another lock we met the best friend of ACBS member, Stan Wojciechowski.

The first lock that we approached was the St. Lucie Lock. The locking process seemed fairly tame until the lockmaster opened the front doors a bit to hasten the process and the water started to flow in at a pace we didn’t anticipate. The thundering water raised the level of excitement in the boat, as well as the water level; and got our attention to the details of locking for future locking experiences. As it turned out, this was the only lock that had a water differential of approximately thirteen feet!

Our first stop to stretch our legs and obtain gas was at the Indiantown Marina, which is 38 miles from Stuart. The marina offers a courtesy car for approximately a mile from the marina. Afterwards, we entered the Port Mayaca Lock and it was quite uneventful. This lock opens up to Lake Okeechobee and from there we took the direct route across the open water of the Lake.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest natural freshwater lake in the continental United States. Can you think of the name of the largest fresh water not bordering another country? (The answer is at the conclusion of our story) The lake is, like many lakes in Florida, one big retention pond and is often described as a “saucer”. It is shallow having an average depth of only twelve to seventeen feet during the wet season and during a drought, the water levels can drop to an overall average of only eight feet. Since the lake is shallow, it can become choppy, turbulent and present a real challenge, particularly if the wind is out of the west. We were fortunate to have the wind at our backs and experienced a smooth ride across the lake. You need a GPS or compass to locate the 1st marker, which is approximately 7 miles into the lake. The marker cannot be seen with the naked eye or with binoculars. In parts of the lake, the depth is a low as one foot, so it is prudent to stay in the channel.

Completing the crossing, we past Clewiston and proceeded along the channel. The western shore is lined with heavy vegetation and thousands of dead trees. Some time ago, the Army Corps of Engineers eradicated the Casuarinas trees because they were not native to Florida. The dead trees line the shore for miles and no longer provide the wind protection they once afforded the nautical traffic. At mile seventy-eight we entered into the Moore Haven Lock. At this point, we were roughly halfway between Stuart and our destination - Fort Myers. We made a comfort stop at the marina near by and then continued on our way along the Caloosahatchee Canal and into the Ortona Lock. We past LaBelle, a quiet old river town that dates back to the early 1800’s, and the village of Olga, which at this point, forms the scenic headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River. The river was once a major transportation artery in the early settling of Florida.

Along the way, there are many no wake zones, manatee protected areas and fishing boats making it necessary to travel at “no wake” speed. As we approached the Franklin Lock, which is the final lock on the waterway, we saw many beautiful estate homes with private docks and boathouses lining the shores.

As we past under the Edison Bridge and entered into the Fort Myers Yacht Basin, we could see our high rise hotel, the Ramada Inn & Suites standing majestically overlooking the harbor. A hot shower - and we were good to go! On the recommendation of the bellhop, we walked several blocks to the “Morgan House” for dinner. It turned out to be an excellent choice and a great meal was enjoyed by all (especially after skipping lunch).

The next day, we were planning to boat over to Cabbage Key, but as fate would have it, “Odyssey” developed engine trouble at the gas dock. The problem was a broken distributor shaft gear and after an unsuccessful search to replace it, the part had to be shipped overnight from Jacksonville. This delay resulted in a day spent lounging around the pool with the biggest decision of the day being “where to go for dinner”? Within walking distance, we found several other restaurants to recommend including “Varian’s
and “Tetley’s Downtown”.

Our third day was spent repairing “Odessey” and making an attempt to reach Cabbage Key, however, strong westerly winds and rough open water cut our trip short. We returned to the dock and the hotel pool once again. Later that evening, we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner and after a full day of adventure - bed sure felt good.

On our return trip to Stuart, we essentially followed the same route with the exception of crossing Lake Okeechobee. This time, we took the Southerly Rim Route, which hugs the shoreline and is approximately five miles longer.

The grand finale of the trip was an overnight way at the historic Clewiston Inn. The Inn was built in 1938 by the United State Sugar Corporation and was used originally to host company executives and visiting dignitaries. The rooms are comfortably furnished and contain an unexpected sweet treat for guests - sugar cookies. The town of Clewiston is known as the “Sweetest Town in America” due to its role in sugar cane production. In the 1960’s after the termination of sugar imports from Cuba, the area underwent a massive expansion of its sugar cane farming and has over 400,000 acres of sugar cane under cultivation.

The Inn has a welcoming lobby with pecky Cypress paneling, beamed ceilings, and a wood burning fireplace and comfortable furniture - just a perfect setting for socializing with friends. Another gathering place is the Everglades Lounge that features an impressive 360-degree canvas mural depicting scenery and wildlife of the Everglades. World-renowned artist, J. Clinton Sheppard painted the mural in the 1940’s. The charming Dining Room offers a wide menu selection with an accent on southern cooking. All in all, the Clewiston Inn was truly a wonderful experience and is a recommended stop for any Okeechobee excursion.

Our trip ended on a sunny afternoon as we pulled in to the launch ramp in Stuart. A good time was had by all and we agreed that we had a rare glimpse of Florida that can only be experienced by boat. By the way, the largest fresh water lake not bordered by another country is Lake Michigan.