Traveling by boat across Florida
The real salt life
Did you know that you can travel completely from one side of Florida to the other by boat? Yes it is true, the Okeechobee waterway is a system of rivers and estuaries that connect Lake Okeechobee with both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Managed by a series of locks, the waterway is home to an abundance of wildlife, and offers a much shorter distance when traveling by water between both coasts.
When it comes to traveling by vessel within the United States, there are few destinations that offer the variety of scenery and cultural ambiance as Florida. From the nations oldest city, St. Augustine, to the gulf coast port of Tampa, the country's very first explorers traveled here by boats. Today, with a population of registered boats near 1 million, Florida boasts the largest population of both registered and non-registered vessels in the nation, truly making it the country's hot spot for traveling on the water.
As a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and licensed master captain, I have had the opportunity to extensively travel the water ways of this state. From operating air-boats, to large yachts over 100' in length, I've experienced a wide range of the climatic and geographical changes which occur along the states coast line. These changes, can be very significant depending on where you are located in relation to the Gulf Stream.
Hidden along the route to some of the most popular destinations on the gulf coast, are many small Islands or Key's as they are often called. There is no real difference between an Island and a Key, as both are land areas surrounded by water. However, there are many different places that the word Island or Key has been chosen by the local government(s) simply as a preferred way to describe their community.
Anna Maria Island, which boarders south Tampa bay, and the gulf of Mexico, is connected to Longboat Key, an Island to its south. This is a great place to serve as either a starting point, or final destination when traveling on the water. The area boasts many historical sites, such as Desoto Point, where the Spanish Conquistador's first landed, to more modern times when Sarasota's John Ringling first settled in the area. Ringling and his circus would spend the winters in Sarasota, and is responsible for much of the city's development. Sarasota yacht club is one of the oldest yacht clubs in the state, and is located on Lido Key, one of the Islands that Ringling helped develop.
Crossing Florida by water
From Sarasota you have two routes of travel, either the gulf or the intracoastal waterway. On days when the wind isn't blowing the gulf is a great option. However, depending on the type of vessel you are traveling on, you may want to conserve fuel. In this case idling down the intracoastal is the better alternative. Keep in mind that there are many bridges along the way, so if your vessel requires an opening due to its height, it may cause for a slower trip.
While traveling the gulf coast there are several places that you don't want to miss. One of them is Bocca Grande, located in the northwestern corner of Charlotte Harbors Pine Island Sound. This area is world famous for its Tarpon fishing, as well as history and pirate lore. The legendary Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar is said to have once had an encampment near here, and some stories claim that he buried his riches on some of the areas numerous Islands.
Useppa Island, which is a nearby small private resort style community for the elite, is on the national register of historical places due to it's archeological significance. According to folklore it was also the place where Gaspar once held a Spanish princess captive. Like many of the Islands in the area it is only accessible by boat. Since it is a private Island anyone wishing to dock at the marina there will need to have permission.
Captiva Island which is just a couple of clicks to the south west, is considered to be a shell collectors dream destination. The many different types of colorful shells as well as shark teeth which can be found here, are often unbroken and in near perfect condition. It's a must stop along the coast and has a marina conveniently located on the north end.
The "Ditch" across Florida. Route of the Okeechobee Waterway.
Follow your route closely
Checking the conditions ahead
As you continue to travel south you will find the entry to the Okeechobee waterway near Ft. Myers. This is the point where you can begin to follow it east, and head across the state. Before making the journey across, it is a good idea to contact the Army Corps. of Engineers to ensure that the locks are running on schedule. These locks require water levels to be high enough to support their operation, so during times of prolonged drought they may not be open.
The waterway eventually takes you to lake Okeechobee, and then out the north eastern side, near St. Lucia. Note: Water depth in the lake is an issue for vessels which have a deep draft, so again, checking water levels prior to making the journey is advised.
Long way from the Gulf
There are numerous opportunities for viewing wildlife such as the roseate spoon bill, which was once hunted to near extinction for its feathers. Spoonbills have made an impressive comeback thanks to conservation efforts. Another bird which is considered to be among the most rare in the U.S. is the Reddish Egret, which normally is only seen in this region.
While observing the many unique forms of wildlife, make sure to remain aware of the potential unseen hazards along your route. Submerged logs, vessels, and shallow areas can appear at a moments notice so keep a heads up for them. While many obstacles are clearly marked in other regions, Okeechobee is known for its hidden ones, so be careful.
Traveling this waterway across Florida is sure to impress, so make it a safe passage, and ensure that your experience will be one you cherish for years to come.