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Water Hyacinth in the approach to the Moore Haven Lock.
Water Hyacinth in the approach to the Moore Haven Lock. Story by Jody Reynolds, Photos by Bill Hezlep

Cruising Florida’s West Coast via Okeechobee Waterway

If you like cruising south Florida or the Florida Keys, but you’ve had enough of Key West sportfisherman wakes, you’ll love Florida’s west coast.

We used to scoff at the idea of Florida’s west coast. Like the old jokes about Sarasota being designed for wheelchairs, we believed that ….

  • It was too shallow for deep draft boats
  • There was nowhere to go

We were wrong on both counts.

The West Coast offers everything most cruisers want: open and protected waters, plenty of depth in most areas, great anchorages, many destinations. … And nowhere near the crowding of East Coast cruising grounds.

The problem is how to get there. In a perfect world, they would have built a canal to connect the St. Johns River from Jacksonville down to the SW coast of Florida. But alas, although a canal was started, work was halted in 1971 due to environmental concerns.

For East Coast boaters, there are just two options.  Well, three if you count the Mississippi Route from the Great Lakes. But for most of us, the choice is either the outside route, which takes you all the way south of Miami and across miles of open water, or the protected Okeechobee Waterway, which cuts off literally hundreds of miles. If you have a tall mast, or extremely deep draft, the Okeechobee isn’t an option. But if your height is under 50’ (actually 49’ now) and your draft is 6’ or less, you might consider taking the shortcut. (ALWAYS check on current depths and conditions before you go.)

A few years ago, the shortcut wasn’t an option for any but truly shallow draft boats. Back in 2009, we talked to one owner whose vessel drew 4’, and he said he was scraping bottom crossing the lake. (The bottom isn’t sand, by the way.) We found good depths on each of our crossings (most recently February 2012), but no one should attempt this canal without charts, gps or knowledge of current water depths.

We’ve crossed the Okeechobee four times. To be honest, parts of the trip are mind-numbingly boring, but some parts are very pretty, and there are some unexpected sights along the way. Locks and bridges are quickly transited, and on one bridge, the tender walks out and stands in the middle while the bridge opens to allow your passage.

A great place for wildlife.

One thing is certain: if you like to look for gators, you’ll love the Okeechobee. In four crossings, we have seen more gators than anywhere else, sunning themselves along the banks, and swimming around outside the Roland Martin marina.

The bird watching is incredible, but, more unexpectedly, we’ve also spotted a camel among the many cows along the route.

Lake Okeechobee is pretty straightforward, except in fog, which we experienced on our first crossing. There’s a jog in the middle of the lake, and despite our GPS, we went to the side of of the channel to get a visual on a marker. It was fortunate we did, as some yahoo came slamming through the markers at about 30 knots, and probably would have hit us had we been in the channel. As it was, his wake nearly knocked us into the marker.

The lake is approximately 30 miles wide … in rough weather, it can seem like a long three or four hours.

Interesting marinas and excellent boat yards.

There are several marinas, but the ones where we’ve stopped (and can highly recommend) include:

  • Indiantown Marina, which is a really nice marina and a relatively short walk to town for restaurants and provisions. This is an excellent west-bound  stop before entering the lake.
  • Clewiston at Roland Martin’s Marina has a tiki bar and excellent shoreside facilities. We took a 68’ yacht into the dock at Roland Martin’s BUT if you aren’t comfortable backing up your vessel, you may want to consult with the dockmaster before attempting dockage, as there is no room to turn around (and no exit at the far end). To reach Roland Martin’s, which is a welcome stop along the route, you must go inside the lock, and then exit the lock (which is often open) when you leave. We’ve seen boats try to turn before the lock, which puts them into a dead end canal.
  • If you need repairs, there are facilities along the way. We developed a leak on our old Elco, Hermione, which caused us to spend some time with the extremely nice people at Owl Creek Boatworks and Storage, East of Fort Myers. Suffice it to say that our dogs came to think of Owl Creek as home.
  • At Mile 119, not too far east of Fort Myers is one of the most exquisite marinas we’ve ever visited: Rialto Harbor. Although very small, Rialto is well worth a stop if you can live without a restaurant or pub. Owned by a lovely couple, to say it’s eclectic might be an understatement.  Each yacht has its own shoreside dock. The facilities (including a lovely pool) are great, and the owners (who enter horse driving competitions when not welcoming visiting yachts) put fresh flowers aboard your vessel. The grounds are beautiful and meticulously maintained, but you may be walking with a horse or a chicken as you wend your way to the pool. Several beautiful animals grace the property, and roam the grounds, greeting guests with seeming enthusiasm.

Once you’re in the Caloosahatchee River, the scenery becomes extremely pretty and bucolic. In fact, it’s one of the prettiest rivers we’ve traveled. Fort Myers offers city atmosphere in a very pretty and upbeat community with lots of restaurants within an easy walk of the city marina.

Everything the East Coast lacks.

From there, the cruising possibilities are nearly endless; south to Naples with its lovely harbor; out to the beautiful barrier islands and and beaches of Sanibel and Captiva; wonderful Cabbage Key; Cayo Costo park, Boca Grand, famous Useppa Club (where our antique boat was welcomed, and we stayed for a couple of months); the great sailing up to Punta Gorda (and the river anchorages); and miles of protected cruising way up the coast to Sarasota with its beautiful keys and beyond.

Even with the Okeechobee shortcut, it’s a hike, but well worth the distance for any cruising boaters! Just don’t tell everyone how easy it is to get across the state.

Excellent link for current information and water depths: http://www.offshoreblue.com/cruising/okeechobee.php

A FEW FACTS ABOUT THE OKEECHOBEE

  • 134 mile in length – from Stuart to Punta Rassa
  • 5 locks
  • 25 bridges (less via the cross-lake route) – fixed bridge at Port Mayaca currently over 49’
  • 15 plus hour transit time at 10k (two days for yachts at this speed or less)

OUR ADVICE TO THOSE CROSSING LAKE OKEECHOBEE:

Don’t underestimate this lake. Despite the relatively short distance between the east and west coast, we strongly recommend charts and a copy of the Waterway Guide.  We have experienced dense fog on one lake crossing, and even on a good day without GPS, markers are fairly far apart and the opposite shore is not within sight for several miles. Also, due to its shallow depths, Lake Okeechobee can kick up a pretty hefty chop, making crossings uncomfortable.

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