Bringing Windsong Home, Leg 3: Ft. Myers to Stuart via the Okeechobee Waterway

The weekend of March 20 I was finally able to get some friends to help crew for me as we crossed Florida via the Okeechobee Waterway:

At 6.5 knots cruising speed, it takes about two days of long motoring to cross the state with a stop in Clewiston. Mark and Robbie both took Monday off so we would be able to make it north a bit on the East coast as well. The plan was to go from Ft. Myers to Clewiston on Saturday; cross the lake and make it to Stuart on Sunday; then Stuart to Vero Beach up the Intercoastal Waterway on Monday.

Friday night we were dropped off in Ft. Myers where Windsong was moored for about a week and a half. It was dark when we arrived, and we had to paddle my old dinghy about a half mile to the boat. The rubber dinghy does not have hard floors, so we couldn't load too much weight. This made us have to take two trips back and forth to collect all cargo along with all three of us. We didn't get any good pictures of the dinghy rides to the boat, but it was a lot of fun crossing the river in the dark of night, only city lights for illumination. I knew where the boat was in reference to the bridge and island surrounding it, but we couldn't actually see it until very close.

We loaded up Windsong, had a few beers and settled in for the night. None of us slept well at all, I was nervous about how the engine would perform on its first real endurance test. We would be motoring about 8-10 hours a day for three days straight. I knew the fuel was clean now, so it was whatever new thing the engine would throw at me that kept me up and nervous. I also realized it was my first night on the hook, away from a dock on the boat. All of the sounds and anticipation of the next days journey kept me up most of the night.

We decided to leave in the morning at 7:30 a.m.; and of course the alarm woke us up right after I finally started to doze off. It was a beautiful sunrise and the first order of business was to get us off the mooring ball. My two lines and chain were tangled on the ball chain, so I had to go down in the dinghy and get wet early trying to make sense of the mess. We warmed up the engine and were soon off and away up the Caloosahatchee River to the Okeechobee waterway.

You can see me in the dinghy, Mark holding me to the boat.

It was before this bridge that we broke down on the last trip. Here we are passing that mark.


Shortly after we passed under the I-75 bridge and the engine started to choke once again. Furious and nervous, I opened up the engine room to inspect the fuel filter. The bowl looked just fine, but the air silencer was off of its mount. The air silencer on my engine is extremely rusted and barely hangs on its mount, mostly held by duct tape and some seizing wire I jury rigged. The air silencer is hooked to some sort of breather line from the injection housing, I noticed this line was twisted and pinched so I straightened it out. The engine stopped choking and ran smooth the whole day after that, with a few chokes here and there as the silencer fell off.

We stopped at a little place called Jacks Marine to top off the diesel fuel tank. Soon after that we approached the first of 5 locks that we would be going through along the waterway, Franklin Lock. We had a green light to go in, and grabbed the ropes along the right wall. They closed the doors behind us, opened the ones in front of us and we raised about two feet as water rushed in.

Approaching the lock

Holding onto the lines

Doors closing behind us

Water coming in

Going through the locks was neat, though they definitely slowed us down and made the day longer. The first part of the river was filled with huge houses and good scenery. Soon after there were a lot of cows, sugarcane fields, orange fields, swamps.... even a camel.

Huge house with a massive water slide:

Many draw bridges too, but they opened quickly and we barely ever had to wait.

The next lock was Ortona lock, we rose about 7 feet on this one. The water rushing it was a lot more intense than the last one, pretty fun.

The day was pretty uneventful between the locks. We traded turns at the wheel, made sandwiches for lunch and just relaxed. The last lock was at Moore Haven.

From Moore Haven to Clewiston was about 10 nm going South along the rim of Lake Okeechobee. This last stretch of the day was strange as it was a lot of reeds and dead trees on the Lake side, with the dike on the other side. It was a very barren looking landscape, but had plenty of gators, pelicans and herons.

This boat kicked up some of the biggest wake I have ever seen. I could have surfed the waves as they peeled perfectly along the shore.

Clewiston is protected by a lock directly across the channel entrance to cross the lake. The lock was open so we motored right in and immediately to our right was Roland Martins Marina where we had a slip reserved for the night. Clewiston is a big bass fishing base, and the marina was the heart of it all. It had a good tiki bar restaurant, a smaller breakfast place, and all the usual marina stuff. There were a lot of boats taking up the long floating dock, so we had to go all the way to the end where the only slot big enough for us was. Right as I was about to pull up to the dock, we noticed the mast was about to plow through a low hanging power cable. We saw it just as the mast hit the warning line, and I cranked her in reverse. This proved a good move as it maneuvered us right onto the dock. The spot was nice as it was away from the noise and crowd of the restaurant.

I should take a break here to talk about Billy. Immediately after we cross Lake Okeechobee on Sunday, we would have to go through Port Mayaka Lock. Less than a mile from the lock is a railroad lift bridge that sets the overhead clearance line for the entire passage at 49.5', the lowest of all bridges or wires. My mast is 49', but also has navigation/anchor lights, wind instruments, and a VHF antenna making it almost 50'. The tide doesn't change much due to the locks, so we couldn't really wait for a low tide to pass under. To get by, one could unstep their mast and go mastless down the waterway, but that is costly and a big hassle. The way most people get by is to call good ol' Billy to do the Okeechobee limbo.

Billy comes out with a bunch of 55 gallon barrels that he stacks along one side of the boat, fills them with river water with a large pump and tilts the boat over enough so the mast clears the bridge. I got Billy's number from Indiantown Marina and had been calling him all day to arrange his services for Sunday. He never answered my calls, and by the time we got to Clewiston I was pretty nervous about our ability to make the passage if Billy never responded. Finally, he called back but told us he is out of town and couldn't help us until Monday morning.

We were all frustrated that our trip could be delayed. Spending the day in Clewiston or crossing and anchoring by Port Mayaka lock were our options if we had to wait till Monday for Billy. We weighed our options and even googled what we could have done to tilt Windsong enough to clear the bridge. We decided to wake up and see what we wanted to do and how the conditions were to cross the lake. After cleaning up a bit we had dinner at the Tiki Bar and passed out pretty early. Since none of us slept well the previous night, and after a long day we were ready for some good shut-eye.

After a good nights sleep I checked the weather on the VHF as soon as I woke up. The forecast had changed from 15 knt SE winds with 20% chance of rain to 25-30+ knt winds with 70% chance of thunderstorm! I sort of thanked Billy in my head, it was a good thing we had time to kill. There was no way I was going to cross the lake in that weather, so we decided to stay in Clewiston to wait it out until Monday. Most of the day was just cloudy but very windy. Later in the evening the thunderstorms came through and we all were thankful we stayed. The new plan was to just get to Stuart on Monday, and moor at the municipal field at Sunset Bay Marina.

We ate some breakfast at the marina restaurant, then took a hike up to the dike and check out the channel to cross the lake. We watched some big fishing boats come through and walked back to the boat to clean and do some projects (attempting to fix manual bilge pump again, clean out cowl vents).

Later on we went on a dinghy ride up the canal in Clewiston to try to catch some fish, no luck.

Gnarly old fishing hub:

The winds began to pick up hard and the rain was drizzling in. More and more boats began to show up, mostly little bass fishers weighing in for a tournament. A huge motor catamaran came in and had to wait in a basing before realizing there was no room for it:

This was a floating house. A straight up house boat. I didn't appear to have any means of moving without a tow or tug.

We spent the night drinking many a beer in the cabin of Windsong, enjoying Irish Pub music on Pandora. It was a great night and we crashed relatively early again. We needed to get moving at 7:30 am in order to meet Billy by 11:00 across the lake. The morning was very cloudy and a little rainy, it made the crossing feel like we were somewhere far north.

Leaving the canal, the view of the Tiki Bar:

Clewiston Lock ahead:

Out of the channel, the sun was coming up on the horizon, mostly covered by clouds though.

The other side looked cold and dreary:

Unfortunately, the winds were extremely tame. We couldn't make more than 3.5 knots under full sail, so we motor-sailed across. We had hoped to cross the lake under sail only, but the winds had other plans. Oh well, we still had a fun crossing.

Unfortunately, the jib roller furling decided to give me more troubles once again. It rolled out just fine, and I thought it would roll up since nothing looked tangled aloft. But it would not roll up by pulling the furling cord, and wouldn't even roll up by hand as it normally had. I could roll it up the opposite way (sail inside out) and that seemed the only way I could get the sail put away. I proceeded to roll it up inside out, by hand on the bowsprint. My roller furling line is wire spliced into a rope, but the rope isn't supposed to roll up into the drum. Rolling it up the wrong way caused the rope to coil into the drum, eventually clogging it up and preventing me from rolling any further, with a few feet of sail still out. I had to improvise and we just threw the sheets around the sail a few times trying to roll the tip up as best we could. It proved to be a lot more difficult than you would think, so we left it baggy and decided to fix it when we were on the mooring in Stuart.

We motored into the Port Mayaka Lock, a very turbulent experience as all of the waves and wind from the lake were blowing right into the lock. Once the doors closed it was peaceful river once again.

Approaching Port Mayaka Lock


And here it is, the 49.5' railroad bridge. As we approached, I called Billy and he said he would be about an hour and a half to get there. We were frustrated by the delay, but took the time to anchor and make some lunch. While we waited a train came by and the bridge lowered. It is typically up all the time, and only comes down for a train.

After a while Billy finally came and did his magic. Robbie made a good video of the ordeal

It was real nervy going under the bridge, and I thought Billy was going to rip out my stanchions trying to fit the barrels in; but all in all it was a lot of fun and I was stoked to be through. It was easy coasting from there to Stuart.

The last lock was the St. Lucie lock. It was crowded at the lock campgrounds, so we had a lot of spectators. This lock was the craziest, as we dropped about 14 feet. Looking over the waterfall to the river below as the doors opened was pretty neat. We even had a snake in the lock with us swimming around Windsong.

The snake:

The river beyond the lock was full of big houses and big boats.

We approached Stuart around 5:00 pm. As the river widened the wind picked up across the waterway at about 20 knots. The mooring field at Sunset Bay Marina was in sight, but the jib decided to begin to unwrap where we rigged the final rolls. I ran up to the bowsprint to struggle with it, and struggle I did. The winds caused the sail to flap wildly as the sheets were not secured or lead aft. My hands were extremely sore from gripping the sheets and trying not to get blown away as the sail whipped me left and right. Eventually Mark came up to help, and we tamed the sail by beating it down with the boat hook. I found a way to lasso the sail with a dock line and secured it enough for it to not unwind for a while.

We decided to stop at the fuel dock to unload all of our junk and figure out which mooring ball we needed to pick up. The wind was howling now and was blowing us right into the fuel dock. This made pulling in nerve wracking, but trying to pull off the dock after unloading was extremely difficult. We eventually pushed off hard enough so I could motor away, and we approached the ball we were assigned to. We needed a few passes to pick it up, since holding onto the hook was extremely difficult thanks to the wind pulling the boat. At one point we lost the boat hook on the mooring ball, and luckily a guy was in his dinghy motoring around to pick it up for us. We figured out that we needed a cleated line to securely grab it, and eventually secured ourselves to the ball.

The fuel dock:

The jib going crazy, the fuel dock, and picking up the mooring ball where the most intense and uncomfortable parts of the trip. True to my last adventures, the worst is always at the end. We celebrated being secure on the ball with a beer, and then pretty much sailed our way in on the dinghy, barely having to paddle thanks to the wind and current.

Drifting away from Windsong:

We left the dinghy tied up at the dinghy dock and packed our things into our ride and left Stuart around 6:30. It was a hazy ride home, we were all pooped and ready to pass out in our own beds.

It was a great leg of the trip, and the largest endurance test for the Yanmar diesel Windsong has. I was happy to see the engine hold up, and ecstatic to finally be on the East coast and closer to home.