While the salty sea is what most of us cruisers crave, have you ever considered going off the beaten path and letting your boat experience some freshwater? Look no further than navigating the Okeechobee waterway-- the only navigable canal to run from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Reconnect with the great outdoors
The waterway is tranquil and full of nature. Make your way through the untouched Florida Everglades. Along the way, you will see acres and acres of Old Florida ranchland and grassy swamp. Osprey, Blue Heron, Alligator, stallions and many heard of cows can be spotted along the way. You will quickly realize that Florida is not just beaches and theme parks. Reconnect with nature as you explore the center of a beautiful state.
A quick Geography and History lesson
Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake contained within a single state. While the name of the lake itself may sound a bit silly, it is rich in history. Okeechobee was known to Florida’s Seminole Indians as “Oki Chubi,” which means “Big Water.” The lake has made it possible to connect the two coasts of Florida.
The Leopard 53 PC was the perfect vessel to accomplish this laidback canal cruise. But you should be prepared to answer a lot of questions wherever you may stop, including from the lock keepers, and there will be an ample amount of rubbernecking.
We cruised in complete comfort. The bow thruster was the perfect addition to assisting the captain and crew while going through locks, it made everything a breeze. The addition of the indoor helm station was made useful on several occasions when the flybridge got too cold and when the rain was unforgiving.
Provisioning for the journey was a breeze with access to a domestic-sized refrigerator/freezer. The flybridge wet bar did not disappoint when we decided to throw some burgers on the grill. And the generator was never turned on because the forward access door and the sliding glass door aft kept a steady and comfortable airflow.
Three steps down from the salon, the master cabin boasted 6 feet, 6 inches of headroom, it is lined with large hull windows, further enhancing the feeling of abundant space. The dual sinks and massive walk-in shower provided the creature comforts of home.
Up on plane this yacht cruised like a dream.
Departing from Fort Lauderdale at 1 am and making a slow cruise to Stuart to be there by sunrise, we get a steady speed. Cruising at 12 knots we burned no more than 5 gallons of diesel per hour.
Upon entering the waterway, be aware that there are numerous opening and fixed bridges along the way. The lowest fixed bridge is near Port Mayaca and allows 49 feet of clearance at high water. In total, you will encounter 26 bridges. Aboard the Leopard 53 PC, we had to call one bridge due to clearance concerns and another was a swinging train bridge.
Once you enter the water way you will encounter 5 locks between Stuart and Fort Meyers. All operating on VHF channel 13. You'll need a good set of fenders, and the lock keepers will provide the lines. If you have any questions, they are happy to assist.
From East to West they are:
- St. Lucie Lock near Stuart
- Port Mayaca Lock
- Moore Haven Lock
- Ortona Lock
- and finally Franklin Lock
On day one we encountered St. Lucia Lock, where you should expect to go up 15 ft! And then on to the Port Mayaca lock. From there we shot across Lake Okeechobee, through some Marshes so we had to carefully follow the channel markers before arriving in Clewiston for the evening. There was a lock here, but it was open upon our arrival.
Do yourself a favor and be sure to spend an evening at Roland and Mary Ann Martins Marina & Resort. If a marina could be a dive, I'd consider this a dive but in the best way possible. Receive a hearty helping of Southern Hospitality when you sleep and dine at this marina, the people who work at this marina are second to none.
We woke up early the next morning and we were on our merry way. The locks run from 7 am to 5 pm, seven days a week. For most of your journey this day you will be able to run open throttle through swampland and farm fields. Enjoy the peaceful scenery and look out for wildlife. Be aware of the all bass fishing boats and be sure to show courtesy by slowing down to minimum wake as you go past.
After a quick overnight in Downtown Fort Meyers, it was an early rise to finish the journey up to Venice, FL, a quaint little beach town on the west coast of Florida. Also known as the "Shark Tooth Capital of the World".
Embark on this journey to discover a different side of Florida. Coastal communities of Florida represent a melting pot of people from all over the US and even the world with ever-changing cultures, whereas Central Florida, along the waterway, still maintains its original culture, still untouched by transplants.
If you have spent most of your cruising time offshore, it's time for a different experience. Take a trip through the center of Florida along the Okeechobee waterway to discover something completely different. If you can do it aboard a Leopard Powercat, you know you are doing it right!