By: Bill Jennings
It always surprises me how relatively few boaters in Florida take their pleasure boat from one side of the state to the other. It is a fascinating trip that presents a variety of landscapes while combining large lake travel with rivers and canals. Best of all, the entire crossing over the Caloosahatchee Waterway can be completed in a single day.
Let’s take a look at a one way crossing from Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, to Stuart on the Atlantic. The first question every Florida boater asks is the available water depth. "The Ditch,” as it is dubbed, was engineered by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and reportedly provides at least nine feet of depth over the entire length. This means plenty of water on your trip for most pleasure craft.
Few special preparations are necessary, but I would recommend you carry sufficient fuel to run the full 154-mile distance across. You should plan on a departure before 8:00 AM, in order to complete the trip in daylight. Beginning your trip up the Caloosahatchee from the Gulf of Mexico, the river is over a mile wide, but as you travel upstream of Fort Myers, it quickly takes on a more river like appearance.
On one Florida crossing, I was riding with an inexperienced boater that we’ll call Bob. Entering the river, he passed on the wrong side of a marker and as you might expect, the bottom rose and tagged his boat. This churned up some sand with his propellers which completely freaked him out. “I can’t do this,” Bob exclaimed. “I am sure to get lost on this trip.” In my effort to calm him down I said, “Hey Bob, it’s a river, how can you get lost?” We completed the trip without further incident. As this tale suggests, you can make this Florida crossing without a great deal of intensive planning.
A few miles up the river you lose the “no wake” zones and are able to settle in at comfortable cruising speed. As you boat, you are never far from private homes on the river and their private docks offer emergency stopping points. In the process of building the “ditch” the Corps straightened out the curving path that the Caloosahatchee river originally followed. This left small rivulets that bowed out from the straightened waterway, only to rejoin the main channel less than a mile downstream. They are called ‘Oxbows.’ While they don’t come with a depth guarantee, many are quite navigable, and you will be sure to see an interesting variety of wildlife. If you decide to explore these Oxbows I’d suggest you trim up and keep one eye on your depth gauge. Any little thumps and bumps that you might feel are probably just gators resting near the surface.
To navigate across the Caloosahatchee Waterway you must pass through five locks. There is no fee for pleasure boaters. These locks are bigger than the ones you are accustomed to, unless you frequent the Panama Canal. Their size was designed to pass large barges and commercial boats and that makes a difference in how you must navigate them. Lockmasters appreciate an advanced call on your cell phone, a couple of miles prior to your arrival. Phone numbers, lock details and any special bulletins are individually listed on the Internet for each lock. Even if you phone ahead, it is necessary to call them on VHF channel 13 as you arrive and to monitor this channel until you have passed through. Here’s a tip: avoid being the first boat into the lock and put on a pair of gloves to handle the lines. This may seem like overkill, but there is good reason. Before the water exchange is completed and you are still hanging onto the side of the lock, the lockmaster for reasons unknown will open the gates. This of course creates a giant wave and you immediately find your boat in a super-sized blender. It takes a couple of strong crew members to hold onto the drop lines. Supposedly, this is done to speed up the lock process, but I have noticed the lock crew snickering when a small boat gets bounced between the concrete walls like a pinball. Bridge operators also monitor channel 13, but don’t ask them to raise their bridge just to gain public attention. There is a hefty fine for requesting an unnecessary lift.
As the heat of the day increases some boaters will stop for a refreshing dip. I would note that the EPA has declared the waterway unsafe for swimming because of its high algae content. I have declared it unsafe for swimming because of its high alligator content. Nothing like a pair of eyes moving towards you on the surface of the water to squelch your desire to swim.
When the Caloosahatchee dead ends at the canal that runs around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee, turn south. In twenty minutes you’ll arrive at the Roland Martin Marina. This marina/resort is a must stop before crossing Lake Okeechobee. I can’t actually think of any good reason for this, but over time this location has come to be a favorite watering hole for fishermen and cruisers alike. Sit at their funky, open bar for lunch and build up your lake crossing courage with each drink you slam dunk. Non-alcoholic if you’re driving, of course.
Entering Okeechobee from the southwest, there is a long well marked channel that heads due east through shallow water that takes longer to pass through than you think it should. Eventually, however, the channel turns northeast to point you across the lake. Lake Okeechobee is a good size- larger than Lake Simcoe in Ontario- and it is very shallow. That means it can blow up quickly. Once on the open lake, a GPS or a compass is necessary to locate and follow the markers that are placed some distance apart. Following these marks will take you directly to Port Mayaca, on the north east shore of Lake Okeechobee and into the St Lucie Canal.
Travelling down the St Lucie Canal, ‘Indian Town’ is your next stop. The small restaurant at the marina will help you find a place to tie up for a quick break. Indian town is historic, so if you are ahead of schedule take a walk through
downtown to peek at the artifacts.
From this point St Lucie Canal takes you directly to Stuart. You will know when you are approaching Stuart by the increasing number of marinas and building structures on the canal. When you round the final turn into Stuart, ragged terrain is instantly replaced with cosmopolitan Stuart Harbor. Here, a detailed area chart is recommended, to help identify and locate the numerous hotels, marinas and restaurants.
In one long and eventful day you have boated coast to coast across Florida. It is a voyage that almost any boater is capable of handling- yet it leaves you with a sense of completing a major journey.