November 25, 2008
Okeechobee Waterway Adventure
November 26-30, 2008
By Jody Goldman
For several months my husband and I have been planning our voyage across the State of Florida. We purchased a Catalina 30’ sloop in Stuart FL, (East Coast) but had a home in Palmetto, FL (West coast) which necessitated the trip. Unfortunately, in the midst of our plans, my father passed away and plans were put on hold. But now, dad is traveling with us in spirit … I know he would have loved this adventure.
We completed the final stages of putting together our list of provisions, charting our course to coordinate lock and bridge openings, and trying to maintain comfortable/manageable daily schedules. We have actually only been on our boat 5 times and neither of us had ever attempted anything more than day-sailing events, and while this might be a routine trip for some, it represented a huge undertaking for both us. We also tried to maintain a schedule that would not risk night time arrivals in waters with which we were not familiar. [See scheduling exhibit at the end of this article]. I found a great deal of assistance from lock tenders, dock masters, and the Corp. of Engineers … all of whom were gracious enough to answer questions and give suggestions.
Dear Lord, please grant us a safe start to our voyage!
November 26, 2008
Our trip began in Stuart, Florida at MM 1 about 2:30pm on Wednesday, 11/26/08 (the day before Thanksgiving). My husband is an attorney, and unfortunately his appearance in court created a late departure. But while I waited for him to complete his responsibilities, I readied the boat, filled up with fuel, double checked our safety equipment, stowed provisions, tied up the dinghy, and prepared lines for our departure. Finally, Tom arrived at the boat, changed from his “lawyer suit” into his “sailor suit” and we were under way.
The waterway leaving Stuart is lined with homes on both sides, and since there is only one way to go I don’t think we have to worry about getting lost. Nevertheless, there are markers to indicate the channel, and because our draft is 4’4” we are careful to stay within the boundaries. By our calculations, the first lock (St. Lucie Lock) was only 15.0 miles away. This was our first experience at traversing the locks on the Waterway. After hailing the lock tender on CH. 13, we waited about thirty minutes for the green light before proceeding, and were guided into position. The lock tender was patient in giving us instructions and helping us overcome the first hurdle. The entire process inside the lock took about fifteen minutes, and once the waters had risen the required amount, the gates opened and we were once again on our way. Initially, we had planned to stay at the St. Lucie State Campground (MM 15.) [NOTE: The St. Lucie State Campground is a state run facility with deep water wet slips, electric and water facilities, and clean shower areas] which was conveniently located adjacent to the locks, but we made much better time than expected so we pushed on to our next stop at Indiantown Marina (MM 29).
Prior to arriving at the Indiantown Marina, we went under 3 fixed bridges and one draw bridge, with the lowest having a minimum height of 53’. Our mast is 45’4” off the water, but looking up from the deck can be very deceiving. Even though we had almost 10 feet of clearance, I swear it looks like we just barely made it under.
Hurricanes of the past have long ago destroyed any signage at Indiantown Marina, so the only announcement marking your arrival at the marina is a forest of sailboat masts … hundreds of them. The small entry at the marina is deceptive and hides the fact that hundreds of boats are actually at the wet slips or ‘on the hard’ waiting for parts or repair. Indiantown Marina is a busy place for being in the middle of nowhere.
We arrived about 6:00pm, and were immediately assisted at the dock by our slip neighbor, Tony Klemm. He and his wife Renatta are from Berlin, Germany and traveling in their 45’ trawler First Nanny. Tony swapped out an electrical connection so we could use a receptacle that was closer, tied off the bow, and help secure our arrival. Then he called his wife and asked that two extra plates be set for dinner. Within :30 minutes we were sitting aboard the First Nanny with a fine glass of wine and wonderful croquette dinner. What a wonderful way to end our first day… safe passage, new friends, and the beginning of lifetime memories.
God was indeed been good to us today!
November 27, 2008
We slept soundly and woke to a beautiful Thanksgiving day. What Indiantown Marina lacks in modern dockage facilities, it makes up in camaraderie. The folks there were great! Showers, kitchen area, laundry facilities and screened deck area created the best place for just hanging out with other travelers on their way to new adventures. A BBQ turkey dinner was planned for later in the afternoon and I would loved to have been able to stay, but we did have a schedule to maintain. The actual town of Indiantown is about a mile walk from the marina, and is dominated by Mexican restaurants. Since it was Thanksgiving day most little shops were closed, but huevos rancheros and beef stew became our breakfast of choice at Rosa’s Cantina. We didn’t speak any Spanish and they spoke no English, but we managed to start the day with a wonder breakfast.
We had expected to top off the fuel tanks here, but the hurricanes had wiped out their fuel dock and it had not yet been repaired. After a quick morning shower, we checked the oil, stowed our gear, and set out for our next overnight stop at Clewiston (MM 65) They have a diesel fuel facility, so that would be a great place to fill-er-up.
After leaving the marina, we went under two more bridges and traversed two locks: the Port Mayaca Lock (MM 37)on the east end of Lake Okeechobee, and the Clewiston Lock (MM 65) on the west end. It’s hard to appreciate just how big Lake Okeechobee is, but shorelines quickly disappear and we were completely surrounded by water with no land in sight.
The charts for the Lake offer two routes. Route one travels the rim of the Lake and hugs the shoreline. Route two cuts right across the middle, is about 10 miles shorter, and offers deeper waters. We opted for Route two, and quickly learned that watching for the markers was not an easy task as they are quite far apart. But keeping an eye on our compass heading delivered us to the mouth of the waterway again. Osprey, gulls, and pelicans kept us company on the whole trip across. At our average speed of approximately 5 knots, it took a little more than three hours to complete the crossing. We entered the Clewiston Lock (which had remained open) and took a quick left to the marina.
Rowan Martin Marina (MM 65.1) was our overnight destination, but again, because it was Thanksgiving day, everything was closed. Had we not arrived on a holiday, I think this could be a very noisy marina at night because it is adjacent to the restaurant, bar, lounge, and bandstand. We had a great night sleep, but it could have been a wild place on any other night.
He has provided a picture perfect voyage.
November 28, 2008
Next morning we started with good hot showers and a great breakfast. We filled up with diesel and once again headed to the waterway. This marina is actually off the waterway by about 200 yards, so it is necessary to turn around and go back out the Clewiston Lock from whence we had come the night before. Once outside the Lock, take a quick left and you’re once again on course. Let me warn you that this is the beginning of the manatee areas, and it is rigorously patrolled. Although we were travelling at about 4 knots, the patrol officers cautioned us about making a wake (?), so we had to sloooooow down. There are about 3 or 4 areas that dictate this attention to manatee safety, and the marine patrol takes their jobs very seriously!
Enroute to Labelle, FL, we encounter two more locks today, Moore Haven Lock (MM78) and Ortona Lock (MM93.5), as well as two more bridges. Unfortunately, our timing on the last bridge was a little late. The LaBelle Bridge (MM 102.9) will open on demand except during the hours of 7:00am-9:00am and 4:00pm-6:00pm. We arrived at 4:04pm. So, we tossed over the anchor and sat for two hours as the sun went down. Two other sailboats arrived after us, and they too set their hooks and joined us in watching a beautiful sunset. The bridge tender opened precisely at 6:00pm and we scooted through. We would be staying at the Rivers Edge Motel dock which is immediately to the right of the bridge. Jim, the owner of the motel, explained dockage was always first come-first served, and on this night there was only space enough for one sailboat. Nothing fancy, no showers, only 20 amp service, and near the noise of the bridge but a safe place to keep for the night. After securing our lines, we walked over the bridge and visited the night life of LaBelle … we were back at the boat less than an hour later.
Incidentally, there are City Docks with about 6 slips directly across from the River’s Edge Motel. They appeared to be quite tight, and their regulations ask that you back into the slips. I heard they were free but I did not verify that information. Jim’s dock fee is 50 cents a foot so it was hard to complain about no showers.
What a wonderful life!
November 29, 2008
Well, we have a few decisions to make today. Depending on our speed and the distance we can cover, we might be able to reach Cape Coral by day’s end. I have made notes on a campground that would be available in the event we have to make a stop earlier than hoped. Tarpon Point Marina (MM 133) in Cape Coral is our destination, and they are about 30 miles from Labelle. But the WP Franklin Campground (MM 121.4) is only 20 miles away. If necessary we could spend the night at the campground and continue to Cape Coral on Sunday. Let’s get started early.
Our first bridge for the day is the Denaud RR Swing Bridge. We didn’t argue with the train that had the right of way, and quickly slipped through the right side when the bridge opened. We shared our last lock, the WP Franklin Lock (MM 121.4), with three speed boats that quickly left us in their wake when the lock opened. We are now entering the Caloosahatchee River and have the opportunity to assess our chances at reaching the Cape Coral area in a timely fashion. We opt to push forward.
Up to this point we have enjoyed calm seas, courteous boaters, accommodating dock masters, fabulous weather and a picture-perfect voyage. Entering the InterCoastal Waterway is a totally different scenario. [The Caloosahatchee River now becomes part of the InterCoastal Waterway system.] We are surrounded by crazy boaters of every size. A small 14’ jon boat passed on our left with four adults and no life jackets. The Patrol boat quickly spotted them also and escorted them to safer waters. Shortly after, we are passed by a paddle wheel boat from St. Paul, MN that created such a wake I thought it could have been an aircraft carrier. A 20’ bow rider has so many passengers that the water appears to be only inches from the top of the railing. Pleasure boats of all sizes are returning from a day on the Gulf and dozens are coming directly toward us at such a speed it looks as if they are “aiming” for us. And my very favorite is a LARGE vee-hull pleasure boat (at least 45’ long) travelling at such a speed, and so close to us, that we were very nearly swamped by his wake. I was truly preparing to cut the dinghy free if it had been sunk because I feared what would happen if it were still attached to our boat.
Winds were head-on and had increased to about 20-25 mph. Seas were choppy and about 3 feet but increasing. As we approached our destination I made a quick cell call to Richard Ray, the dockmaster at Tarpon Point Marina, and he provided excellent directions for getting us into safe harbor. His crew was waiting on Dock C for our arrival and helped with all our lines and setup. This is a truly a beautiful facility!
Our neighbors, in a Hunter 30, were from Minneapolis MN and used their boat as their Florida condo. They visit 3 or 4 times a year and enjoy being out of those wonderful Minnesota winters. The four of us became quick friends and found the closest restaurant to share dinner and stories. Looking at the seas and sky tonight made us grateful we had made the decision to push toward Cape Coral in lieu of stopping earlier in the afternoon. Small craft warnings are now being broadcast and we definitely would not want to be on the water tomorrow.
Thanks for a safe trip and for guiding us to make the right decisions.
November 30, 2008
So, we leave our boat in the safe harbor at Tarpon Point Marina and are already scheming about how we are going to shuffle our schedules so we can take her to Palmetto, which is our ultimate destination about 102 miles north.
I guess that will have to be PART II of the adventure.
See you on the road!