An Okeechobee Tale


As we contemplated our route from the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show to Naples on the West Coast, Bob asked, “Which way would you like to go? South around the tip of Florida through the Ship Channel or North through the Okeechobee Waterway?” Memories came back of sailing around the southern tip of Florida 25 years ago in the St. Pete to Lauderdale ocean race. The stars were still out and the sky was just beginning to lighten as we pulled in the dock lines on the MJM 40z “GRACE”. “Let’s go north.” I’d never been through the rivers and canals of central Florida and I was intrigued by the thought of trying out the joystick system in the locks.Minutes later we were leaving behind the hulking shapes of the mega-yachts at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show.

To the west the full moon was waning as the first rays of the morning sun broke through the clouds over the Gulf Stream. We swung out of the inlet and headed north and slid the throttles forward to 85% and leveled off at a 34-knot cruising speed. As the sun heated the morning air and turned the spray in our wake to gold, we kept the windshields open to the balmy breeze coming off the beach. We set the autopilot to 0 degrees as GRACE slid easily over a slow northeast swell. I stood watch at the helm while Bob made our traditional hot oatmeal and coffee breakfast, and the miles slipped away beneath us.

By mid-morning we were turning into St.Lucie Inlet where we passed fishermen still coming out to chase the big game fish we had seen swirling the water offshore. Bob took the helm and watched the chart plotter while I sat in the port Stidd seat and picked the channel markers off from the chart kit in front of me. As we crossed the Inter Coastal Waterway, we had to pay careful attention to the many branching channels and the day beacons that marked them. We slowed to no-wake speed and passed easily under the 14’ Old Roosevelt Bascule Bridge. As the river narrowed, we met a small barge and crane and a few more boats coming down the St. Lucie River.At Mile 15 we entered the basin below the St. Lucie Lock around 10 am. On the Okeechobee Waterway the lock tenders monitor channel 13 and the bridge tenders are on channel 09.

The St.Lucie lock informed us that they had divers working on the lock and that it would be two hours before we could transit. Moving to the side of the basin, we dropped anchor in 10 feet of water, set up our laptop and cell phone offices in the shade of the hardtop, and watched as other cruising boats joined us.Just before noon we saw signs of activity around the lock and started our engines and hoisted anchor. This was a perfect opportunity to try out our joystick’s Skyhook feature. We maneuvered easily into position in front of the lock gates and pushed the Skyhook button on the shift control head, automatically locking us into our GPS position and compass heading. As we walked around the boat setting fenders, the computer kept us within a couple of feet of our position and maintained our heading within a degree.

Our fellow cruisers, however were constantly shifting and steering to avoid each other and to hold against the wind and current as the lock opened.As the lock control light turned from red to green, we entered and with the joystick earning its keep, sidled gently against the metal walls of the lock, picking up the bow and stern lines that were hanging from the top of the lock walls. The third boat behind us was a high sided trawler yacht that got caught sideways in the cross wind and as their stern swing to starboard, the anchor and bow roller met the port lock wall with a crunch of bending metal. I silently thanked our joystick again.When the gates closed behind us the ones ahead were opened a few inches and a narrow but 12 foot high waterfall spilled from the river above into our lock. I held the bow line snuggly around our forward mooring cleat and gradually pulled the line in as the water rose. Eventually we could see the shining stretch of river ahead and the green trees lining its banks. With the upper gates fully open, we used the joystick to sidle over to the middle of the lock and powered out into the upper river.

Sliding along at 25 knots it felt more like English countryside on an August day as the green fields and trees sloped down to the river banks under puffy while clouds and a pale blue sky.We had just settled into our river run when we arrived at Mile 39 and the Port Mayaca Locks. Since Lake Okeechobee wasn’t very high, the locks were open and we slipped out onto the seeming endless silvery expanse of the lake.

Opening up the engines to cruising speed we were again at 34 knots with the windshields open and summery air blowing our hair back. As Bob said later, “This is like being on vacation!”As we approached the southwest shore of the lake, small grassy islands appeared beyond the channel markers. We passed a cruising sailboat slowly powering west and then reached the earthen dikes that mark the edge of “Route 1”, the canal that follows the rim of the lake around to the Moore Haven lock at Mile 78, marking the beginning of the descent into the Caloosahatchee River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Now that were experienced hands at transiting a lock, we hardly said a word as we picked up our lines and waited for the water to drop and the gates to open. We shared the lock with a 42’ sailboat with its too-tall mast lashed to giant saw horses on deck.Just beyond the lock we met an unforeseen obstacle.

The Moore Haven railroad bridge is rarely closed, but this day we had an hour wait while a tiny three car train pulled by a switcher engine made a lot whistling and banging noises behind the houses of Moore Haven. The bridge operator seemed to have forgotten his VHF radio and his office was in the cab of his white pickup truck parked by the tracks where he communicated with us by shouting. Finally, the train crossed the bridge very slowly and departed with a mournful wail of its horn. We answered with a powerful double-toot from the 40z’s Kahlenburgs.

The next stretch down to the Ortona Lock was relatively wild with long stretches of wooded shores, swamps with fields beyond. As the afternoon advanced, towering cumulus clouds built overhead leaving long golden rays of sun streaking through to reflect off the river ahead. Eventually we transited the Franklin Lock and were in the tidal reaches of the Caloosahatchee River. As dusk deepened, lights came on along the river shore. Just in time, as we approached the outskirts of Fort Myers, we came to the first lighted channel markers that would guide us down through the maze of sandbars between us and the Gulf of Mexico.

The channel is narrow and in addition to the lighted marks, there are numerous unlit day beacons on black pilings that had to be respected. Bob and I quickly settled into a routine. We dimmed the chart-plotter to night-time illumination, set the searchlight on a sweep pattern ahead of us, and Bob drove while I piloted from a paper chart set up on the portside nav station. Using a small chart light, I picked off each day marker, found its reflective number in the searchlight beam and checked it with the binoculars. Bob tracked our progress on the chartplotter and watched the depth sounder. Looking ahead it was easy to become dazzled by the blaze of lights from downtown Fort Myers with its brightly lit buildings and automobiles in addition to the navigation lights of all the channel markers, bridges and boats. It took unbroken concentration to keep us on track, but we never strayed once from the channel.

After turning west across Redfish Cove in Cape Coral, we set a course to pass close by Glover Bight on the north shore and headed in to Rumrunner’s waterfront restaurant where we had reservations for dinner. The chart-plotter and searchlight earned their keep as we followed the twisting channel through a half dozen right angle turns to round the last corner in total darkness and found a warm glow of lights radiating from the patio at Rumrunner’s with open dock space right out front, just a few steps from our reserved table. We tied up for the night and went to enjoy a delicious meal. Having left the cabin and bridge deck lights on, we noticed a small crowd of admiring onlookers stopping to look at “GRACE” while we dined.In the morning we were greeted by Cape Coral’s genial developer (who owned a J/24) on board his classic mahogany launch “Rumrunner.” We congratulated each other on the excellent design and construction of this fine pair of yachts, and after fueling up at their dock, we were on our way again.Heading south, we passed the low sandy islands at the entrance to the bay and out under the Sanibel Causeway into the open Gulf of Mexico.

A brisk 20 knot southeasterly wind met us and we opened the throttles to our 34 knot cruising speed once again, as we flew over the waves south towards Gordon Pass, the entrance to Naples. Hugging the beach we admired the shining sand and dark green palms tossing in the wind, the clear blue water, the wheeling flights of seabirds, and the few lazy puffy clouds that glowed in the morning sun. It seemed a shame to stop. We could have gone on forever, but we had friends to see in Naples and although it didn’t seem possible, a plane to catch back to Boston that night.Eventually we cut back and wheeled into the inlet. Recognizing a familiar 34z on her lift in Port Royal, we stopped to share a few tales of the sea with some wonderful friends, before idling over to the Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club.

This facility is on the leading edge of a new way to enjoy your boat. With indoor rack storage for boats up to 50 feet long in a building designed to withstand 150 mph winds, your boat can be launched in minutes by a 55,00 lb capacity forklift and waiting for you when you arrive. It was astonishing to see “GRACE” lifted so easily from the water and whisked away into the boat house. After a delightful luncheon in the dining room we encountered another MJM owner who had happened by, who offered us a ride to the Fort Myers airport. All the way there we conjured up dreams of our next great adventures, where we could go, what we might see, and who we could share it with. I’m dreaming about the Abacos, and I hear there are even better islands just a little further out.

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