While in Ft. Myers, we worked out our plan for getting back to the relative familiarity of the Atlantic coast. This would involve cutting across Central Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway from Ft. Myers to Stuart. The route is about 150 miles of canals, five locks, a few bridges and about 25 miles of open but shallow water crossing Lake Okeechobee. While the bridges are manned and operate around the clock, the locks only operate from 7 am to 5 pm, so the trip across had to take into account the timing of the locks. Not only that, but we needed to make sure that we had good weather for crossing the lake. It would not be good to get caught in a thunderstorm on the open lake, which can get rough due to its size and shallow depth. Given the conditions, we planned to cross in four days, starting on Easter Sunday.
We departed the Ft. Myers Yacht Basin under calm conditions Sunday morning, but with the expectation that winds would increase to 10-15 kts during the day. Our destination that day was LaBelle, a quaint little town that offers a free city dock where you can stay up to three nights, water and power hookups provided (also free). About 15 miles out of Ft. Myers we encountered our first lock, the Franklin lock. We had studied YouTube videos of other boats “locking through,” but were still a bit nervous about it. When we hailed the Franklin locktender to request passage, we told him we were greenhorns and would appreciate any guidance he could offer. He was great. As we pulled into the lock, he came out to the rail and tossed us our lines for tying up in the lock. He instructed us on how to control our boat during the lift and how best to exit the lock afterwards. We talked for about five minutes and he patiently answered all my questions. It helped that we were only lifting two feet at Franklin, but the locktender advised us that the next lock would lift us eight feet, and the last lock would drop us 14 feet, and he offered tips on those locks, too. There was one other boat in the lock with us, but the crew was patient while we talked with the locktender, and even gave us some further pointers while we were riding the water up. We pulled out of the Franklin lock much relieved to have gotten through relatively easily. We didn’t have any delays from the bridges that had to open for us, and pulled into LaBelle in the middle of the afternoon. There were six slips at the dock, but only three were occupied. A couple guys from the other boats helped with our dock lines, and we were safely secured for the night. One reason we made such good time is that Suzy had spotted a diver on the dock in Ft. Myers who was cleaning the bottom of a boat near us. I buttonholed the guy to see if he could do Madge before we left, and he worked us in. He did a great job and the price was a bargain. Afterward, he told us that the bottom wasn’t too bad, but there had been some fair sized barnacles on our prop. With a clean prop and bottom, Madge was flying again. We averaged just under six knots for the trip from Ft. Myers to LaBelle.
Our second day was a little more challenging. Adjacent to the LaBelle dock was the LaBelle bridge, and we would have to pass under it first thing – only the bridge stays closed to boat traffic from 7 am to 9 am to accommodate automobile traffic. Also, there was supposed to be construction underway at the Ortona lock about 12 miles upstream, and the only scheduled openings were at 7 am, 11:30 am and 4:30 pm. Our plan was to sleep late, leave LaBelle at about 9:30 am, arrive at the Ortona lock a little after 11:00 am, then finish the day at the city dock in Moore Haven at the western edge of Lake Okeechobee. The total distance covered would only be about 25 miles, but it would set us up well for crossing the lake on Tuesday. There were two motor trawlers with us at LaBelle who had the same departure time as us, and were heading in the same direction, but with different destinations. We pulled out together with Madge in the rear as the slower boat, and passed under the LaBelle bridge on schedule and in order; however, as Madge was going under the bridge a third motor trawler came around the bend and joined our line, then passed Madge after we all cleared the bridge. I expected that we would soon be left behind, but Madge was able to stay pretty close to the rest of the line, as we were able to maintain over 6 kts. A couple of larger (and faster) power cruisers passed our group between LaBelle and the lock, and I was getting concerned that we might be at the end of the line and miss our slot for locking through. The Ortona lock is fairly small, and the two big power cruisers would probably have to go through alone, and there were three other trawlers ahead of me. However, as we got within radio range of the lock, I heard what appeared to be normal operational chatter. This would only be possible if there was no active construction at the time. Madge neared the lock around 10:30, and I could see the three trawlers from our little group were just starting to enter the lock. There was still enough room for Madge, and we slipped in with perfect timing, not having to wait at all. We exited the lock in order, but within a few miles the trawlers had pulled off, and Madge was left alone on the waterway. We were so far ahead of schedule due to Madge’s clean bottom and because there was no construction at the lock, that we pulled into Moore Haven in the early afternoon. The city dock there looked like it could hold about five boats the size of Madge, and there was a motor trawler already tied up at the far east end. We tied up at the far west end, leaving as much room as possible between us for other boats that might come along. Needing a couple of items we missed in Ft. Myers, we buttoned up the boat, expecting some afternoon showers, and headed into town.