Taking The Shortcut Across Central Florida

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Updated 11:41 AM ET, Thu October 1, 2015

Article highlights

  • Taking the OWW saves time and fuel. For powerboats, it's a 2-day trip. For sailboats, it may be even more.
  • In a sailboat, you must have a draft of less than 6 feet and a bridge clearance of less than 49 feet to get through.
  • Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) is a 110-mile scenic walking trail around the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee.
Thinking about visiting the opposite coast of Florida by boat? If you are short on time or just want to enjoy all the nature that Florida waterways have to offer, then consider a transit through the Okeechobee Waterway (OWW). The OWW is a series of rivers and locks through Lake Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee is the second largest fresh water lake in the USA, connecting the east and west coasts of Florida. The OWW is operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE).

Taking The Shortcut Across Central Florida

Can All Boats Use This Passage?


Because of water depth and bridge clearance, this trip is not for all boaters. If you have a trawler, and you make all the locks in time, this is an easy two-day transit (134 NM). It is a bit more challenging to make this trip by sailboat. If your sailboat has a draft of about 6 feet or less and a mast height less than 49 feet, then you can enjoy this minimum two-day trip across Central Florida.

What Are Some Benefits?


Taking this route will help you save on time and fuel. Because you do not travel around the Florida peninsula, you will save more than 165 NM of open water passage. The OWW passage is through nearly completely protected inland waters. From the east coast, the entrance to the waterway is in Stuart, Florida, approximately 80 NM south of Cape Canaveral.

You will enter the OWW at the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway at St. Lucie Inlet in Stuart. You then follow the St. Lucie River southwestward to South Fork where you enter the St. Lucie Canal. You continue on a west-southwestward path to Port Mayaca into Lake Okeechobee. There are 5 locks to manage and, depending on how you choose to cross the lake, there are as many as 26 bridges. Of these 26, 10 are operating bridges and some will have restricted schedules.

From the east, there are 5 locks on the OWW that are of interest to those making the passage across Florida. They are the St. Lucie Lock, the Port Mayaca Lock, the Moore Haven Lock, the Ortona Lock, and the W.P. Franklin Lock. If you begin your trip at the junction of the St. Lucie River and the St. Lucie Canal in Stuart, you will pass through the St. Lucie and Port Mayaca Locks, where you will enter Lake Okeechobee. You will then encounter 3 more locks while transiting the Caloosahatchee River through Ft. Myers to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (just north of Punta Rassa). None of the locks have a transit fee.

The Jacksonville District USACE has current updates and great information about making this transit. They have an interactive map of the route with information about marinas and services along the way, in addition to the lock schedule and the weekly local notice to mariner updates.

Taking The Shortcut Across Central Florida

There Are Two Routes To Choose From


There are two routes available to make the transit depending on your schedule. Route #1, known as the Open Lake (or Cross Lake), offers the quicker and more direct path across the lake. If your boat has a draft of 6 feet and an air draft of less than 49 feet then this may be your only choice across the lake, depending on weather. Route #2, known as the Rim Route, follows the southern shore line allowing for a more relaxed path around the lake with several marinas to stop and visit along the way. The channel for this second, "shoreline route" is more shallow and is not recommended for boats with more than a 5 foot draft.

Both routes are marked with navigational aids to "keep you in the channel". Lake Okeechobee is quite shallow, so stay within the navigation aids marking the channel. As of August 2015, the USACE reported a depth of 6.81 feet for Route #1. Route #2, along the southern rim, is reported to have a depth of 5 feet. The St. Lucie Canal will carry a depth of approximately 8 feet, while the Caloosahatchee River will carry a depth of approximately 14 feet.

Sights And Sounds


While transiting across the lake, careful attention to navigation will be necessary but the St. Lucie Canal and Caloosahatchee River offer a relaxed pace to enjoy the wildlife along the banks of each waterway. Alligators are abundant, sunning themselves along the banks or just swimming around. Bird watching will also draw your eyes away from the waterway offering the opportunity to see bald eagles, osprey, snail kites, roseate spoonbills, blue-winged teal and many more.

Places To Visit


If you have no schedule or if you are in need of unforeseen repairs, there are a number of great marinas to visit. Indiantown Marina, located on the St. Lucie Canal, is a popular stopping point and a great "Hurricane Hole", should the need arise. They have wet slips and offer dry long-term storage for the snowbird boaters.

River Forest Yachting Center has two locations: one near Stuart on the St. Lucie Canal and one on the west coast in La Belle, on the Caloosahatchee River (just east of the Ortona Lock). If you want to take a break and do some fishing on Lake Okeechobee, Roland and Mary Martins Marina is a good stop. They are located in Clewiston, along the southwest end of the Rim Route and offer two restaurants and lodging, including a campground, RV park, motel and condo rentals. There are a number of fishing guides to take you to those special "honey holes" on the lake.

If you want to truly enjoy all that Lake Okeechobee has to offer, stop at one of the many marinas along the southern rim and spend some time on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST). LOST is an approximately 110 mile trail encircling the lake. More than half of the trail is paved, and the remainder consists of a two-track gravel roadway on top of the 35 foot high Herbert Hoover Dike. It is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail system. You can enjoy walking, hiking, rollerblading, bicycling and horseback riding around Lake Okeechobee.

The height above the surrounding area provides hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers with scenic vistas of the lake. The trail is open year round and can be utilized for short day hikes or loop hikes. There are 14 camping areas available on or adjacent to the trail. Hunting is not permitted on any section of the trail. Fees or permits are not required for trail use. Access can be gained from any recreation area located around the lake.

On the east coast, Stuart offers many choices for preparing for your transit both from a provisioning and service standpoint for your boat. Stuart is a boating community and, in particular, a fishing community known as "The Sailfish Capital of the World". There are many respected boatyards for prepping your boat, nearby specialty shops, and grocery stores to make your transit enjoyable. The west coast also offers big city entertainment, shops, and fine dining in Ft. Myers, before moving inland along the Caloosahatchee River.

Once on the west coast, your cruising possibilities are endless: south to Naples with its lovely harbor; out to the beautiful barrier islands and beaches of Sanibel and Captiva; wonderful Cabbage Key; Cayo Costo park, Boca Grande and the famous Useppa Club; the great sailing up to Punta Gorda (and the river anchorages); and miles of protected cruising way up the coast to Sarasota with its beautiful keys and beyond.

Conclusion


From either direction and depending on your perspective, the Okeechobee Waterway can offer a short trip across the Florida peninsula or a safe and wonderful vacation exploring central Florida by water instead of car or RV.
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