Cruising the Okeechobee

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The 152-mile Okeechobee Waterway is like the Intracoastal Waterway in that it is an adaptation of existing waters — the St. Lucie River from Stuart to Lake Okeechobee, the lake itself, then the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf. The two rivers had always drained the lake and supported passage by small boats, but after the disastrous floods of the mid-20s and the diking of the lake, the natural system was overhauled by the Corps of Engineers and opened in 1937 as a first-rate commercial waterway — and a wonderful shortcut for cruising boatmen to get from the Atlantic to the Gulf without rounding the Keys, a saving of 206 miles.

To do that, the Engineers built five locks to lift boats from sea level to the lake, which averages 12 to 16 feet above sea level, then back to sea level again. The locks are relatively new, well-managed, and quite easy to get through. Under “normal” conditions, they operate essentially on demand from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, seven days a week, though a wait to allow several boats to go through together is not unusual. This schedule was begun in November 2012 when hours were changed to provide consistent levels of operating service for all locks across the nation.

The waterway's controlling channel depth is normally 6.44 feet with the lake at its non-drought minimum level of 12.5 feet (above sea level). This means that a vessel draft of 5.25 feet should be okay.

Even when the lake is full, the river portions of the waterway have gentle currents and tide ranges are mild — averaging only a foot or so at either end. Commercial traffic is light, and under normal conditions, navigational hazards are few unless you count fishing boats and manatees, which are usually abundant.

Our late 2012 calls to check on things with the Corps of Engineers in Clewston was answered with the good news that at the moment water level is good. (Bus of course that can change...)

Also, folks should be aware of construction projects mostly around the southern half of the lake, where culverts are being replaced. That project will be ongoing for some time. There will sometime be slow No-Wake Zones posted at those sites as well as at a few boat ramps.

The waterway can be divided into three parts: From its beginning at “The Crossroads” at the junction of the St. Lucie River and ICW in Stuart, it’s ten miles upriver and around the city, then up the South Fork of the St. Lucie River and into the St. Lucie Canal. (Be sure to check our Treasure Coast Cruising Guide and Chart Six for more detail on those first ten miles of Okeechobee Waterway.)

At Mile 9 and the Palm City Bridge, you'll find Riverwatch Marina on the east side with dockage and service. At Marker #39A, a lovely, deep little river winds east to Stuart Yacht. Farther up the waterway, between the high bridges of I-95 and Florida's Turnpike, is American Yacht.

Just west of the bridges at Mile 15 is the St Lucie Lock with a nice little park with dock, ramp, picnic and campsites.

From there to the second lock at Port Mayaca is a fairly straight landcut that runs past Indiantown and friendly Indiantown Marina near Mile 30. In town, the famous Seminole Inn serves very good food and sometimes you can arrange for them to pick you up and drop you off for dinner (or to rent a room) by calling 772-597-3777.

Nine miles farther west, at the lake entrance, is the railroad lift bridge at Port Mayaca with its maximum clearance of 49 feet at lake level 14.5 feet (above sea level) — if the lake is higher, the clearance is less and vice versa; check ahead. Marina operators are usually well informed or you can call any of the several phone numbers included here. If your clearance is chancy, the crew at

Safely past that obstacle, you go through Port Mayaca Lock and immediately into the second part of the waterway, Lake Okeechobee.  Derived from the Seminole Indian words meaning “big water,” Okeechobee is aptly named, for it is the largest of Florida's lakes and the second largest fresh water lake within the entire US. It covers over 730 square miles of Florida's heartland.(Continue...)

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