Okeechobee

The Okeechobee waterway connects Ft. Myers FL to Stuart FL allowing vessels to cross from West coast to East coast without traveling all the way to Key West or Marathon. This saves many miles and much fuel. The trick is to ensure Lake Okeechobee water depths are sufficient to allow safe passage. Last year the drought reduced water levels to a point where passage for deep-draft vessels like Tivoli was impossible. This year is different, enough rain in South Florida has raised lake water levels to over 15 feet and 9.5 feet in certain channels; plenty deep for Tivoli’s 6 foot draft.

So, on December 5th we depart Legacy Harbor Marina in Ft. Myers bound for Stuart via the Okeechobee waterway (OKW).

My vision of the OKW was that it would be much like the ICW along the Florida Panhandle leading to Appalachicola; largely undeveloped and uninhabited. How wrong I was. The ride to Moore Haven on the Western shore of Lake Okeechobee was very pleasant. Many nice homes line the waterway with boats out front, nicely manicured lawns, palm trees, and Bougainvillea in bloom.

Tivoli hums along mile after mile, the water is deep, navigation is easy, life is good. We have several bascule bridges to negotiate. This means hailing them on the VHF and requesting passage. Normally, we sit idling while road and foot traffic is stopped and the bridge tender raises the span to allow us passage. Several of these have clearances of 23 feet and Tivoli requires 27. So we often wait for the bridge but it is generally fairly painless and we are soon on our way.

We also negotiated 2 locks on this leg; Franklin and Ortona locks. We grew accustomed to the massive locks on the Tenn-Tom; these are small in comparison raising our little boat 2.5 feet and 8 feet respectively. Piece of cake, except these locks do not have floating bollards like those on the Tenn-Tom. Instead, one has to motor up to the side of the lock and grab onto ropes dangling from the side. This works well if you have a small boat and there is no wind or current. Holding 88,000 pounds, however, proved to be impossible when the upstream gate is opened allowing water to flood in. Yes, that is correct, the upstream gate is opened a foot or so to let water in (or the downstream gate to let water out). This is a bit disconcerting when first observed! We quickly learned the lines need to be wrapped around a cleat on the boat. We made it through both locks without incident but our buddy boat on this leg (Gerald Wallace and crew member Lon) on Takes Two found themselves with their helm hard hard over and full throttle and still heading for the concrete wall on their port side; wicked cross currents swirling in front of the lock caused this ballet. They made it through without incident. Fortunately, we are somewhat heavier than the DeFever 49 and didn’t feel the impact as much.

We tie up safely at a very old marina in Moore Haven, the Riverhouse, and invite our friends over for Docktails. An enjoyable evening was had by all and we turned in early.

I look at my watch for the third time; 5:30 AM, I’m awake. We plan to depart as soon as the Moore Haven lock opens at 7:00 AM. Sunrise is 7:15. We are up, shower, gulp down a quick breakfast, and begin our checklist run-through. I step outside and marvel at how warm it is; no need to bundle up anymore. It’s 70 degrees. I remove the stack cap, start the trusty Lugger, we stow the shore power cord, cast off our dock lines and head for the Moore Haven lock just down the waterway. The sun is rising and the few clouds to the East are brilliant orange and pink. The wind is calm and the water like glass. We enter the lock, tie up easily and the lock-through goes without incident until we depart. This time it was not the current, but weeds. Yes, the plague of Florida, water hyacinth, and other floating plant material flooded into the lock when the gate was opened and collected around our boats and any submerged items – like stabilizer fins, rudders, etc. When it was time to depart Tivoli barely moved at an RPM that would normally have her accelerating out of the lock. I apply more power and we are able to exit but clearly we have a problem. Takes Two is in the same situation. We both stop, back up, turn in a circle to port, turn in a circle to starboard, go forward again….nope, still some unwanted drag. Repeat the same dance. I’m sure this would have been a curious site to any onlooker. Two trawlers going around in circles, backing up, going forward – synchronized boating! Finally, we were able to shake off the hitchhikers and headed down the channel running along the South rim of Lake Okeechobee. The channel is maybe 100 yards wide with 6-7 feet of water under the keel. The port side is saw grass as far as you can see; the starboard side is the rip rap of a manmade channel. It is Saturday but remarkably quiet; we meet the occasional trawler, sportfishing boat, or bass boat but relatively little traffic.

We round a bend and encounter a construction zone in the channel. We approach a massive steel girder “fence” on our starboard side with buoys marking shallow water or obstructions on the port. Maybe 25 feet wide at most. Tivoli is 16 feet wide. So, we are on edge as we move slowly this narrow single-lane to finally escape on the other side.

Who do you suppose was beached in front of this obstacle waiting to pass? Our friend the tug John Parrish. Yes, the one that followed us off shore all the way from Clearwater to Ft. Myers towing two barges with very large cylinders aboard, Now, he is pushing them down the OKW. We think he is stalking us.

We reach Clewiston and turn Northeast out into the Lake. I was a bit nervous as I felt the water depth under our keel in certain places would make for a white knuckle crossing. Fortunately, the wind was 3-4 knots, the lake was flat calm, the temperature in the low 70s and, most importantly, the depths under the keel ranged from 6-10 feet the entire 21 mile crossing. Turned out to be a delightful crossing but I can easily see how a stiff Easterly breeze, white cap conditions, or poor visibility could make this a harrowing experience.

On the East shore of Lake Okeechobee we lock through Port Mayaca lock (four locks down, one to go) and face one last stressful moment for the day. We are passing under a railroad lift bridge. Takes Two is in front of us and I see him stop abruptly, turn while directly in the narrow passage under the bridge, then continue on. I didn’t quite understand what his problem was until it became my problem a few minutes later as I turn into the passage. I too throw the transmission into reverse, rev up the RPMs, and wait while Tivoli slowly comes to a stop. A fisherman with a buddy and child aboard have decided to tie up to the bridge and fish in the passage under the bridge; invisible until you are on top of him. As we approach he unties and slowly motors out of the way and we are able to pass. I guess he doesn’t appreciate the fact that boats don’t have brakes and one can’t stop 88,000 pounds on a dime. Some people don’t deserve boats.

The last few miles into the outskirts of Stuart are pleasant; the day has been beautiful and we finally reach our destination, River Forest Marina, where we are to have our old davit replaced. We have traveled 1060 miles in Tivoli, learned much, and met many new friends – and it’s only the first month of our adventure.

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