A Boat Delivery via the Okeechobee Waterway

I have delivered many sailboats between Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida since 2004, when I brokered a boat in Bradenton and the buyers asked me to help bring it to Miami. I know the shortest route through Florida Bay is about 300 miles and should take between 50 and 60 hours at a 6-knot average, depending on the weather.
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Spectacular sunsets are just one of the many charms of Lake Okeechobee

Spectacular sunsets are just one of the many charms of Lake Okeechobee

I had, however, never done a delivery across Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway and through Lake Okeechobee, mainly because the boats I delivered had masts that were too tall for the bridges you encounter.

Earlier this year, that changed when I was asked to deliver an O’Day 35 from St. Pete to Palm Beach. With an air draft of 47ft and a keel that drew 4ft 5in, it seemed a perfect boat for the trip. I also checked the distance. If I added the extra 70 miles from Miami to Palm Beach to the normal trip around the Keys through Florida Bay, the total distance would be about 375 miles, which meant the delivery would take an extra day. By comparison, the trip across the waterway was about 300 miles, making it a much better, straighter alternative. It would also give me a chance to see what the waterway was all about.

The Okeechobee Waterway cuts right through the heart of the Florida peninsula

The Okeechobee Waterway cuts right through the heart of the Florida peninsula

At the time, all I knew about the waterway was that there were locks at either end of Lake Okeechobee and a bridge with less than 45 (or maybe it was 54) feet of clearance. Indeed, as I began to prepare for the trip and study the available waterway information, I realized how uninformed I really was. For example, while it’s true there are two locks to get into and out of the lake, there are also three other locks (two on the west side and one on the east side) that bring you up to the lake level and then back down again. This seemed straightforward until I learned that the locks only operate between 0700 and 1630.

Then I learned more about the bridges, including the one bridge where the clearance level is a real issue—the famous Port Mayaca Railroad Lift Bridge. Although it is open except when a train is coming, it only opens to 49ft and so this becomes the limiting height for the whole waterway. To get around this, there is apparently something called the “Waterway Limbo” that takes place. The story goes that you can get in touch with the people at Indiantown Marina (about 10 miles east of the bridge) who will come to your boat, put a number of plastic 55-gallon drums along your rail, and fill them with water to heel the boat over while going under the bridge. This supposedly gets you another one to two feet of clearance.

Fortunately, my research—backed up by some actual measurements of the O’Day 35—convinced me I wouldn’t have to worry, even without doing the limbo. Time would tell if I was correct.

Beyond that, there are eight other low bridges of various construction types (swing, single bascule, double bascule and lift) that open on demand between 0600 and 2200—except when some are closed during rush hour. To my relief, all of the other fixed bridges proved to have a minimum clearance of 55ft.

The Okeechobee Waterway stretches 154 miles from where it intersects the Florida west coast Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at the Sanibel Bridge to an intersection with the Florida east coast ICW at Stuart. Given the O’Day’s little 21hp Universal diesel engine, I estimated the journey would take about 30 hours at a cruising speed of 5-6 knots. I did not, however, factor in the waiting times at the bridges and locks and their closing/opening hours—the trip would therefore ultimately take almost 54 hours and extend over three days and two nights.

It can be tricky timing the waterway’s many locks and drawbridges

It can be tricky timing the waterway’s many locks and drawbridges

With my friend Derek Cohen as co-captain, we left St. Pete on a Monday at 1800. The wind was from the northwest and relatively light, but we still sailed out of Tampa Bay and made good time down the west coast toward Ft. Myers, despite it being an uncomfortable, rolly night. By dawn, we had made it as far as the Boca Grande Channel entrance into Charlotte Harbor, and while the wind had died the swells had not, so we decided to enter the harbor and continue on to Sanibel via the ICW. This is a well-marked and protected waterway with Captiva and Sanibel Islands to the west and Pine Island to the east.

At 11:30, we entered the Okeechobee Waterway. It was really not any different from the ICW at this point as we cruised past Ft. Myers. But the farther east we went the less crowded it became until we were virtually alone. It was at this point that we started to calculate the opening hours of the bridges ahead and realized that we could not make it all the way to the lake before the bridges shut down for the night.

We did make it to the first lock (Franklin Lock) in time and even got a brief lesson in “locking through,” since we were the only boat in the lock and the lockmaster was able to spend some extra time with us explaining the process. By the time we got to the Ft. Denaud swing bridge, though, it was starting to get dark, and since we were feeling a little tired, we decided not to try for the La Belle bridge. Instead, we anchored, fixed a light dinner and got a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, there was a slight fog on the dead flat calm water when we awoke, a beautiful sight. We had about five miles to go to the La Belle bridge and aimed to get there after its first opening. This would have been a great plan, except we forgot to read the fine print, which would have told us that the bridge was closed from 0700 to 0900 for rush hour! We also found a little six-slip dock right next to the bridge with free electricity (read A/C for the night!) that we could have used had we gone the extra five miles the night before. Oh well, next time. As it was, we tied up at a small park on the other side of the waterway to wait the hour and a half for the bridge to open.

The mast of the O’Day 35 was just short enough to make the trip possible

The mast of the O’Day 35 was just short enough to make the trip possible

After that, we started calculating the next bridges and locks openings. From the La Belle bridge, we had the Ortona lock about eight miles ahead, then the Moore Haven bridges and lock to enter the lake 16 miles on. It was 0900 when the La Belle bridge finally opened, and it would take us five hours to make the 24 miles to the lake, which meant we’d get there at about 1400. The total lake crossing itself is about 35 miles. At 5 knots, it would, therefore, take us about seven hours to get to the exit lock that had a last loading at 1630, which meant we’d arrive about four hours too late.

Because we didn’t want to have to anchor overnight in the middle of the lake, we decided to stop in Clewiston, about 15 miles south of the Moore Haven lock, and made a reservation at the famous Roland Martin Marina. It turned out to be a good decision— nice floating docks, shore power (read A/C for the night!), a diesel top-off, hot showers and a great restaurant. Not surprisingly, we slept well and were up before first light to turn the boat around manually in the narrow docking channel and then set off across the lake into the sunrise.

A little note here about the lake level. It is normally about 14ft 5in above sea level (hence the locks). However, when we went through the level was at about 11ft 5in, so the Moore Haven lock at the lake entrance only had to raise us about 6in. Similarly, the lock to enter Clewiston was left completely open, making the entry and departure from the marina there very easy and fast, giving it the same level as the lake. As for the lake depths, we saw 6-7ft as a minimum along the entire marked channel.

The peace and quiet of a calm morning west of Lake Okeechobee

The peace and quiet of a calm morning west of Lake Okeechobee

From Clewiston, we crossed the last 20 miles of the lake in good time and entered the Port Mayaca lock at 1000. The drop in this lock was only a few inches and the pass was uneventful. Now we were at the dreaded Port Mayaca Railroad lift bridge. My research indicated that since the lake level was down about a foot, the waterway level would also be down and the clearance would be actually about 1ft more (or 50ft total). We motored slowly under the bridge, cleared it easily without even taking a deep breath (or loading a single water-filled drum) and were home free.

After that, we had about 20 miles to go to the last lock, which would lower us 12ft back to sea level. We arrived at the Port St. Lucie lock at 1430, but had to wait for a westbound boat to be lifted up the same 12ft and clear before we could enter. Because the water level changes in the lock slowly and only by gravity, it took almost an hour to lock through. Our training at the Franklin lock really came in handy here, as we had a longer drop in the lock and had to hold onto the lines more securely.

The author’s co-captain tends lines at one of the waterway’s multiple locks

The author’s co-captain tends lines at one of the waterway’s multiple locks

Once out of the lock all that was left was to motor the rest of the way to Stuart, although it seemed to take forever. Fifteen miles and three hours later we cleared the Green 1 mark and turned south on the ICW to Palm Beach. We had successfully transited the Okeechobee Waterway!

Upon reflection, it had been a beautiful passage through some truly fascinating country: with all types of flora and fauna, and surrounding terrain that varied from almost desert-like areas to virtual rainforests. Birds swooped, alligators lurked, fish jumped. Beautiful mansions gave way to trailer-park retirement villages. It only seemed appropriate that you make the trip at 5 knots to take it all in. Powerboats came by at times, but most of them slowed down as they passed so as not to throw us around too much. When a few big motor yachts and sportfishing boats zoomed past throwing huge wakes, all I could think was that they were missing the beauty of the waterway by going so fast.

I’m already looking forward to the next time I have an opportunity tackle this waterway. Knowing the scheduling issues as I now do, I should be able to plan a more efficient trip as I enjoy the same scenery and wildlife all over again—all at a nice leisurely pace. 

A past liveaboard cruiser, contributor David Dodgen not only has his USCG 50T license but also works as a yacht broker in South Florida

Photos courtesy David Dodgen

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January 2018

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