Okeechobee Bound


Ultimately Lisa and I will be in Key West, Florida, for two months this winter, but instead of heading straight down the east coast of Florida, our plan is to cross the state via the Okeechobee Waterway route. We wanted to revisit the splendor of the west coast of Florida that we have enjoyed so much on previous visits. The east coast portion of the waterway starts in Stuart, Florida and provided us an opportunity to visit friends from home who were wintering in the Stuart area before we made our trip west to the sunset side of the state.

Everyone was all smiles at the Dolphin Bar, where Lisa and I had lunch with the Ways.

Scott and Angie, friends from Charlevoix, Michigan, along with their three children Hilary, Amber and Tyler are in the middle of a year long educational traveling adventure (http://waybigadventure.com) and had just arrived in the Stuart area the day before our arrival to Nettles Island, which is about 10 miles northeast of Stuart. Scott waved to us from the tip of the island (he knew we were approaching) making us feel like we were returning to the warm familiarity of our homeport where friends would welcome us from shore. Shortly after docking we had time to catch up on our respective adventures before Scott helped me transport our sad, deflated dinghy to the repair shop in Stuart. We dropped the dinghy off, making arrangements to pick it up the next day. The repair research I found told me the 5-inch tear needed first a patch on the inside of the inflatable pontoon, adhered with a two stage adhesive, letting it dry overnight and then repeating the same process on the outside of the pontoon, which is exactly what was done.

It looks pretty ugly but this patch is doing the job and it’s great to have the use of the dinghy again.

Scott and Angie have been coming to Nettles Island as guests of Angie’s mother, Theresa (Scott affectionately calls her Mother Theresa) as she’s had a place here for the last 22 years. We took advantage of Scott’s local knowledge when he suggested we go to lunch at Shucker’s, an open-air restaurant with the sight, sound and aroma of the ocean’s salty, breaking waves. The next day Scott, his son Tyler and I went to retrieve the repaired dinghy and then met all the girls for lunch at the Dolphin Bar and Shrimp House. Francis Langford first started the Dolphin Bar as the Outrigger Restaurant back in the early 1960s. Francis was not only a big name movie and radio star but also an avid boater. She and her husband Ralph Evinrude had owned an island in Canada’s North Channel at the end of Baie Finn and it was here they cruised for over 45 years. Although Lisa and I have been to Bay Finn by boat we never did see the Evinrudes or their 108-foot Burger called Chanticleer. It was fascinating dining at this landmark restaurant on the water with the Ways. Without local knowledge we would have missed visiting this restaurant on our way through this area.

Lots of movie and radio memorabilia at the Dolphin Bar.

On the way back to the marina I asked Tyler if he missed his friends from home, since he’s been exploring the country since last October with his family. He stated that he’s been so busy learning about our country, going to museums, national parks, etc. that he has not had time to miss his friends and home. I thought this was such a mature answer for a kid his age and quite frankly this is pretty much how Lisa and I feel about our time away from home, while on our current boating excursion. We keep fairly busy with new experiences, though we do miss our family and friends back home very much.

Leaving the AICW at MM986, we headed into the St. Lucie River, just west of Stuart, en route to Lake Okeechobee and the west coast of Florida. The Okeechobee Waterway is a 144-mile short cut across Florida. It provides mariners the ability to save time and money since it is 157 miles shorter than having to navigate down to the Keys, and then northwest past the Everglades and up the west coast to the Fort Myers area where the ICW begins again. We don’t find many short cuts like this on our travels and this one not only saves time but it’s a very scenic, rural alternative. Lake Okeechobee is the second largest fresh water lake in the continental United States and is the headwaters for Florida’s Everglades.

Mooring dolphins are built to hold off much, much larger vessels than Kismet; we had our bow tied off to this one.

The first day of our waterway crossing was spent navigating from Stuart, 40 miles west on the St. Lucie River; which included a trip through the first of five locks that we would eventually lock through on the three-day trip across the state. Once out of Stuart the surrounding scenery turned from metropolitan to more open, residential areas and finally to farms, marsh and swamp lands. The most interesting part of the first day was our arrival at the Port Mayaca Lock, which is the entrance to Lake Okeechobee. As we were at the end of our travel day we received permission from the lockmaster to tie off onto the mooring “dolphins” (these are sets of six pilings, spaced 45 to 60 feet apart, situated by locks for barges and pleasure craft to tie up to while waiting to be locked through) for the night. Tugboats and barges typically use the dolphins but when not in use and with permission from the lockmaster smaller boats like ours can moor overnight. No water, electricity or access to shore but a perfectly secure tie up for the night at zero cost. Sometimes it’s the things you get for free that are just priceless.

The Mayaca Lock shown with both ends of the lock open, it made for a very quick locking experience.

First thing in the morning I radioed the lockmaster to request a lock through and a few minutes later the lock doors opened and we were given a green light to enter. A typical locking situation would have had us enter the lock, secure the boat while the lock doors would close, water would enter or empty the chamber, depending on whether you were going up or down, and after the lock process ended the exiting door would open for a departure. Much to our surprise the exiting doors to the Mayaca Lock were open as well and we simply drove through the lock. This happens when the canal and lake are at the same levels, and was a first time experience for us.

We had a perfect day to make the 25-mile crossing of Lake Okeechobee and that’s a good thing. Good because the water was calm, therefore making the passage very pleasurable, which makes Lisa happy. With the lake waters relatively shallow, an average depth of about 11 feet prevails; the waters can become rather turbulent with foul weather and higher winds. It would have been a very long three-hour crossing with rough waters, but the day we made our trip, it was as smooth as could be.

The rim route skirts the southern portion of Lake Okeechobee and is an alternative route to the open lake waters.

Once across the lake we entered what’s called the Herbert Hoover Dike, appropriately named after our 31st President. It was in the 1920s, while Mr. Hoover was President, that authorization was obtained to build a 20-foot high dike around the circumference of Lake Okeechobee. The dike was commissioned to prevent the low-lying areas from flooding out after high waters caused by hurricanes. We cruised next to the dike from Clewiston to the lock that separates the lake from the Caloosahatchee River at Moore Haven. Just past the lock is a railroad bridge that is manned by an unusually stationed bridge tender. This bridge tender's workstation is his very own pickup truck. Apparently he sits in his truck all day until his services are needed to open the swing bridge.

We had a pleasant conversation with this bridge attendant as we were moving through the open swing bridge.

It’s a good thing this dock in La Belle was wide open for our unconventional overnight docking.

We made our way to La Belle to secure moorage for the night. According to the travel guides there are two options provided by the city of La Belle for the free overnight dockage of transient boats. We found the one next to bridge, where one has to dock med-moor style, but it was full. We continued downstream to the next dock and found it was replaced by very nice floating docks with a dozen or so slips, all available at no cost. No cost is a great deal and appreciated by the boating community and when we find and use these free services we return the favor by spending money in these towns, a pay back of sorts. The new slips were all for 18-foot boats so obviously our Kismet would not fit by docking the normal way. Since it was too late in the day to make it to the next town and with nowhere to anchor we had to improvise. We couldn’t pull Kismet into the slips so we tied up sideways and straddled two of the finger docks by tying up to the ends of the docks and pilings parallel to the shore. We were as secure as if we had docked conventionally and we were able to get a good evening's rest for the final leg of our shortcut through the state of Florida to Fort Myers and the west coast of Florida the following day.