By Judy Koetitz
We were headed south to the Keys for the winter when we got the call. “We’ve bought the boat,” Deb said, almost like she couldn’t really believe the fact that she and Henry had actually done it. Three years ago, they had joined my husband, Gene, and I on the first leg of our maiden voyage as full-time cruisers north on the ICW. We had just retired and were taking our new boat/home up to the Chesapeake. They kept telling us, jokingly, that we were their “heroes,” and someday they were going to do the same thing. Well, I thought, looks like the first part of that “someday” was here.
They had found a terrific deal on a boat like ours—but a little bigger—and they decided she was just too good to pass up, even though they were, realistically, a couple of years from the full-time cruising thing. By Christmas, the deal was done, and the good news was they were now owners of a 47-foot, shallow-draft trawler located on the west coast of Florida. The bad news was they had just a week’s vacation to get her to the east coast of Florida, the first leg of the journey to her new home in Baltimore, Maryland—and could we help them? Absolutely!
Again, the good news was there is a “short-cut” across Florida called the Okeechobee Waterway, which cuts right through the heart of Florida’s still pristine and undeveloped mid-section. The bad news, again, was that because of the severe drought that had plagued the state for the last two years, the depths on the Okeechobee Waterway were at all-time lows, with some areas reporting shallow spots of no more than 4.25 feet. Their boat draws 3.6 feet, so if we picked that route there was not going to be a lot of wiggle room.
The alternative was to bring the boat south, down the west coast of Florida almost to Marathon, before heading north. By using the Okeechobee we could save many miles, gallons of diesel, and several weeks of precious vacation time that would be needed later to get the boat on up to Baltimore.
Henry had done his homework and checked with the marinas along the waterway, the Corps of Engineers (who runs the locks), and other cruisers who had recently made the crossing. The consensus was that, yes, we could make it if we took it slow and only traveled in calm seas. We all decided it was a go!
Henry and Debbie, along with Deb’s sister Cindy, Gene, and I would bring their new boat, Seven Tenths, a Great Harbour 47 that Henry had hardly driven, across a waterway that was historically shallow and that none of us had ever transited before. Sounds like an adventure to me!
We left Burnt Store Marina in Port Charlotte at first light. Henry turned the boat on a dime, using the bow and stern thrusters and we snaked our way out of the marina and into open water.
Our first obstacle was a thick blanket of morning fog engulfing Charlotte Harbor. Henry activated the radar and, it, along with the rising sun, made fog a non-issue in short order.
Since the water levels were so low on the Okeechobee, the first western lock coming into the waterway was only opening twice a day. I calculated that we could make the only afternoon opening at 3 p.m. if we hurried. This meant running the small Yanmar turbo-diesels wide open, which would give us about 10–11mph. It also gave us an awesome dolphin show as five of them cavorted in the boat’s bow wake, jumping high out of the water and racing alongside us for over 15 minutes. NOAA was also warning of an approaching cold front with gale force winds predicted. We had to cross tomorrow or we would lose our weather window. So we put the “pedal to the metal” and arrived just in time for the afternoon lock opening.
Once in the waterway canal we pushed on until sunset. We tied to a dock attached to a small motel in the little burg of La Belle. No power, but we were at Mile Marker 103, putting us in a good position to cross the 30 miles of open water tomorrow. The day had been near perfect with calm winds and bright sunshine, but the coming weather was on all of our minds.
Again the next morning we were off the dock just before sunrise. We watched as it came up over the canal, a beautiful red sunrise, and we remembered the old sailor’s lament: “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.”
The waterway to and from Lake Okeechobee itself is a coffee-colored, fairly straight ditch. Depths were good as long as we stayed in the middle. It is sparsely populated by humans, but abundant in wildlife. Alligators sleepily sun themselves on the shallow shores and Great Blue Herons stand quietly waiting for breakfast to appear. We remarked that the water was so opaque that everything seemed to be mirrored. The pictures we took gave us pause when we tried to figure out just which way was up.
As we neared Clewiston, we watched the smoke rise from the cane fields and several air boats disappear into the swamps of the lake.
Our first real trouble spot on the crossing was the channel leading from Clewiston into the main body of Lake Okeechobee. We were told to go slow and keep a watchful eye on the depth finder. We heeded that warning and although we passed places where the depth finder read less than 2 feet under the boat, we never felt a bump or touch.
We passed a catamaran that had just come from the other side of the lake. Half a mile from the end of the shallowest part, they had run aground. We felt their pain but could do nothing to help them, considering the narrowness of the channel and the 4-feet-deep water. Slowly and carefully we inched past them. As we looked back, we were happy to see they had maneuvered enough to find deep water and were again back in the channel. In ten minutes they were home free—we hoped we would be as lucky.
For having three chatty women on board the day was unusually quiet. Everyone’s eyes were continually drawn like a magnet to the depth finder. Several times it went blank and everyone seemed to wince in unison as we waited for the telltale “thump.” Blessed silence! So far luck and the Water Gods were with us. The next area of concern was Rocky Reef.
The lake channel parallels a long section of very shallow water where the rocks are just below the surface. All that shows are tufts of grasses and little pockets of sand here and there. In the middle of this nothingness when all we could see in any direction was water and the little tufts of green sticking up, we had to make a hard left and cross a barely submerged reef, being very, very careful to honor all the marks and not turn too soon. Again we had several places with readings of less than 2 feet, but not a touch did we feel.
We breathed a sigh of relief as we hit the “deeper” water of the middle of the lake—deep being a relative term. The depths were a consistent 6 feet under the boat for the next 10 miles. We were almost giddy! We could actually see the Power Plant on the far shore. We lined up its towers and “gunned” her to 8mph. One more trouble spot to go.
The water at the entrance channel to the Port Mayaca Lock was reported to be some of the shallowest on the waterway. Indeed, we lost our depth reading in a couple of places, but again felt no bumps. The gates to the lock were open on both sides and we sailed through, being careful to avoid the charted rock just outside the channel.
THE FINAL STRETCH
We had done it! It was New Year’s Eve and we had successfully transited the shallow waters of Lake Okeechobee. That evening as we docked in Indiantown Marina we were so emotionally drained that we declined a most generous invitation to join in the marina’s New Year’s Eve festivities. We made it until midnight—barely—and wished each other Happy 2008 with a toast of Champagne brought along for the occasion. Then we all hit the sack. We still had a storm coming and miles to go.
For the third morning in a row we were up and off at “O dark thirty.” We had reservations at a marina in Stuart about 30 miles and one lock away. This lock, the St. Lucie, was also on restricted schedule and we wanted to make sure we were there for the morning locking at 10 a.m. The storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and our Weather Worx showed rain bands closing in. Waiting for the lock we were joined by three other boats. Locking through together we remarked that this was the most traffic we had seen since entering the waterway three days ago. They were all locals, as the eastern shores of the waterway were now well populated, unlike the rugged alligator country on the west side.
We descended the 15 feet and exited the lock, traveling at slow speeds because of the heavy manatee concentration in the area. The day had become overcast, but the rain so far had held off, and we were easily able to find safe haven at our marina.
We were almost euphoric. We had done it! We had made it across a very shallow Okeechobee, without so much as a touch! Our final destination up the Indian River to Melbourne was an easy day and a half away. We were golden!
Even the forecasted weather had held off—but not for long. Over the next three days as we waited out the 40-knot winds and 29-degree temperatures, snug in the marina, we thanked the heavens over and over that we were able to squeeze through that weather window and “get ‘er done”!
This story was originally posted on the Passagemaker web site.
Judy and her husband Gene were born and raised in Montana. Gene’s job brought them to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay area where they discovered the fun of boating.
When they became empty nesters Gene sold Judy on the idea of full-time cruising. Now she loves it as much as he does. She began writing to share their experiences with friends and family in her logs of Lo Que Se A, the name of their 37-foot Great Harbour trawler, (which means “Whatever” in Spanish)
In the 4 years aboard Lo Que Se A they have logged nearly 17,000 miles with trips from Florida to Maine as well as completion of America’s Great Loop. This year (2008) they will winter in the Bahamas and are looking forward to cruising the Down East Loop next year.