Okeechobee Gone

Destination, Clearwater Florida.  Our goal is to make it up the west coast of Florida and visit friends in the Tampa area.  There are three routes.  Down through Key West and up across the Gulf of Mexico, coming in near Naples. Or, with a bit of luck, one can sneak through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and hug the Everglades around the bottom of the mainland.  The third option is the Okeechobee Waterway.

Okeechobee map
Okeechobee Waterway Map, click to enlarge

At over 150 miles long, with 5 locks and a massive lake in the middle, it’s unlike anywhere we’ve been so far.  We’ve driven down by car to the St. Lucie Lock to see how it works and talk about how we would enter, maintain control and exit the lock.  We got to see a few boats go through and this helped alleviate some of the mystery.  With this excursion under our belt we begin the trip.  South from Vero Beach to Stuart FL, where we take a hard right off the ICW and head up the St. Lucie River.  Away from the ‘big water’ boats on the ICW.  We’re feeling rather out-of-place at first.  Lots of runabouts, water skiers and small fishing boats zipping about in all directions.

The channel through this area isn’t all that wide and we have to concentrate a bit harder to be sure we don’t get distracted.  After several hours, the river narrows and we begin the actual trip across.  Our goal is to make it to that first lock before they close at 4:30 PM.  If we don’t, we’ll spend the night anchored out below the lock and dam.  Jan nails the schedule and before 4 PM we are nudging our way into a cavernous box.  It is a bit intimidating.  Shangri-La has a lot of momentum and my worry is keeping her ‘quiet’ while getting close enough to the lock wall where we will grab the lines hanging down over the side.  I leave the girls (Pam and Sarah, our pet names for the Port and Starboard engines) idling, in case we lose control.

St Lucie Lock
Locking Through

Up against the lock wall, fenders in place we grab our lines.  Jan at the stern, me at the bow.  Slowly, the massive gates on the lock begin to close and it’s hard to fight off a feeling of claustrophobia. Once the doors behind us are closed, the upper doors are cracked open.  We’re going to be raised about 8 feet into the river above.  And now the fun begins.  Imagine a door cracked about 18 inches wide, with an eight foot wall of water waiting to surge through.  The boats we watched were runabouts the day we visited. This however is a whole new ballgame. With her vertical 4′ deep bow, Shangri-La wants to knife into the current, pulling away from the wall.  What a hoot.  Jan and I are laughing like kids on Christmas morning, but in reality we’re both terrified we may not be able to hang on.  The boat lunges from side to side, trying to find that wave that will free her of the wall.

And then it’s over.  As the water nears around a foot of difference, the gate begins to roll back and open all the way.  And we’re done.  Hop up in the bridge, a nod and a thank you to the lockmaster pulling his ropes back up to dry and away we go. Right beyond the lock is the cutest campground with 8 slips for boaters.  We have one reserved (because Jan just KNEW we were going to make it) and we’re anxious to tie up, Day One is behind us. And who’s in the next slip? A fine couple we met earlier in our trip.  This kind of chance meeting will begin to repeat itself on an eerily regular basis.  Folks we’ve been docked or anchored around popping up at another location, miles and miles from where we first met.

Okeechobee at daybreak
Crossing the Big Lake

Early the next morning we made our way out of the slip bidding farewell-for-now to our new friends.  The trip is, well, uneventful.  Most of the ‘river’ is a diked or straightened drainage from the big lake out to the Atlantic.  We pass through our second lock and enter the lake.  I’m feeling a bit more in my element now.  This looks much like the Great Lakes – except if you fall out of your boat, you can probably walk to shore from most anywhere in the lake.  The route across rarely exceeds 15 feet deep.  We’ve heard stories about storms on the Big O, but on our trip, both coming and going, we had calm water.  The picture above is early one morning coming back East, having just entered the lake from Clewiston on the south shore.

When it comes to wildlife on the waterway – there’s no lack of excitement.  We did see a number of alligators, egrets, hawks, eagles and herons along the way.  The ride is for the most part very relaxing.

Okeechobee wildlife
Black Snake hitching a ride

Most of the ‘river’ sections are cut straight as an arrow with a turn now and then, so it does not require the constant vigilance for shoals, marina docks, wrecks, rocks and manatees like on the ICW.  On our way back east, while tied up in Moorhaven we awoke to a guest wishing to ride along.  Jan said “ain’t no way!!” so we shooed him back into the water before departing.

We made the trip in two and a half days, both coming and going.  We stopped in Moorhaven for one night coming and one night on the way back.  At the WP Franklin Lock near Ft. Meyers we spent a few nights at a delightful campground with beautifully kept grounds and a cute as can be back bay where the docks are. All in all, an incredibly relaxing journey.  Our favorite part was the Fort Denaud Swing Bridge.

When you hail the bridge tender on the radio, you will be firmly notified, “I cain’t see y’all yet.  When I kin see y’all, then I’ll open the bridge.”  Whereupon this

swing bridge
Ft. Denaud Swing Bridge

sprightly woman of age will amble out onto the swing bridge, pull some levers and begin the slowwwwww opening of the center span.  She rides on the span as it swings open and waves as we go by.  Such a great moment of old south.  

We ended this chapter with another stop at the St. Lucie Lock campground where we were joined by Jan’s daughter and 7 year old grandson.  From there we headed east. . where we continue to Eat Life.