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Boating Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway

From the Panama to the Suez Canals, boaters love shortcuts in a big way, in that they often save time, gas, and headaches. That’s why the Okeechobee Waterway, which links the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, is so popular with boaters.

Situated two-thirds down Florida’s east and west coastlines, the Okeechobee Waterway officially runs about 143 miles between Stuart in the east and 15 miles to the west of Fort Myers, where the Caloosahatchee River meets the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. In between, boaters will enjoy a part of Florida that few coastal-clinging mariners ever see.

The Waterway opened in 1937 and is basically divided into three portions. The St. Lucie River, which turns into the St. Lucie Canal, runs 38 miles and ends in Lake Okeechobee. After the large lake (about 25 miles across using ‘Route 1’), the Caloosahatchee Canal and subsequent Caloosahatchee River run about 80 miles out to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

The boating conditions are generally ideal for this trip, with only bad weather on Lake Okeechobee being a typical concern (watch for afternoon thunderstorms). There are five locks on the waterway, which are all typically easy to navigate. A wide variety of bridges that may be closed at night make daytime navigation by far the best bet (a wide range of facilities along the way also make daytime travel easy). The general depth is eight feet when using Route 1 across the lake and about six feet when using Route 2 (along the northern coastline).

The first 15 miles are actually in the St. Lucie River, with a wide variety of facilities available to those needing them before starting the voyage. The first lock, called St. Lucie Lock, is at Mile 15. It raises the water level by about 13 feet (water levels rise on the way to the lake and fall to the west). Boaters should be aware that manatees (and other creatures--like alligators) often ‘lock through’ with boats and that caution is recommended.

Indiantown is at Mile 29, with the large Indiantown Marina serving as the last stop until Clewiston, 35 miles to the west, for those using Route 1 across the lake. Those who stop here for the night might want to ask about Owens Grove fruit, the historic Cracker House, and dining (or an overnight stay) at Seminole Country Inn and Restaurant.

The Port Mayaca Lock is at Mile 39 and is sometimes wide open at certain water levels, allowing boaters to pass right through on the blinking green light. After this, boaters are in Lake Okeechobee.

Lake Okeechobee stands as the second largest freshwater lake in the continental United States (behind Lake Michigan). Charts generally show two main ways for crossing the lake, with the Route 1 open water option to the south (about 25 miles) and the Route 2 ‘rim route’ to the north (about 35 miles). Route 1 can definitely be a bit more daunting due to weather and limited navigational help, while Route 2 allows for easy navigation and stops in small towns like Pahokee and Belle Glade.

Whichever way you choose, the routes rejoin near ‘the Sweetest Town in America,’ Clewiston, which earns its nickname from the sugar cane industry and the friendliness of locals. Highlights of this great town at Mile 75 include complete facilities, great fishing opportunities, and rooms and dining at the historic Clewiston Inn.

The Caloosahatchee Canal begins at Mile 78 and the Waterway is unusually wide and deep here. The town of Moore Haven just past the Moore Haven Lock makes for another convenient stopping point along the way.

Next, there’s easy passage through Ortona Lock at Mile 93.5 and then the small town of La Belle at Mile 103. Known as the ‘Honey Capital,’ La Belle has docks on both shores, with boaters typically making the stop for provisions or a visit to the Harold P. Curtis Honey Company.

The headwaters of the beautiful Caloosahatchee River follows La Belle, with lots of pretty shoreline and quiet scenery. The final lock, W.P. Franklin Lock, lies at Mile 121.4, with several options for stops in the next few miles.

The run from here to Fort Myers is about 14 miles, with busier boat traffic typical. Highlights for the interesting town of Fort Myers include the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, a great local history museum, and lots of boating options. Many boaters view bustling Fort Myers as the end of the Okeechobee Waterway, but it actually continues another 15 miles to the end at the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. From here, a wide variety of Gulf of Mexico boating options await!

DETAILS

The Southern Waterway Guide (tel. 800/233-3359, www.waterwayguide.com, regularly $39.95, but just $35.96 for ABA members) is a great resource for the Okeechobee Waterway and much more. A huge help for this and other ABA overviews, they also publish the Mid-Atlantic Waterway Guide and the Northern Waterway Guide.