Okeechobee Waterway - An Introduction
The Okeechobee Waterway (OWW) offers the mariner an inside protected passage across the Florida Peninsula from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The eastern entrance to the OWW is located in Stuart, FL approximately 80 NM south of Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast. The western entrance is located just off of Punta Rassa, FL about 77 NM south of the entrance to Tampa Bay on Florida’s west coast.
From its junction with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway at St. Lucie Inlet, the Okeechobee Waterway follows the St. Lucie River in a northerly direction and then loops back to the south passing Stuart and Palm City, FL. The OWW then turns more southwestward passing under the Interstate 95 and Florida Turnpike Bridges before entering the St. Lucie Lock.
After exiting the St. Lucie Lock you will have entered the St. Lucie Canal. The waterway continues its southwestward direction for a few more miles before turning more west southwestward passing Indiantown, FL and Port Mayaca, FL before entering the Port Mayaca Lock. Once clear of the Port Mayaca Lock you will have exited the St. Lucie Canal and entered Lake Okeechobee itself.
At this point a decision has to be made as to which route to take across the lake (Route #1 or Route #2.) Route #1, often referred to as the "Open Lake or Cross Lake" route, will take you southwestward directly crossing the southern portion of Lake Okeechobee to Clewiston, FL. Route #2, commonly called the "Rim Route" skirts the southern shore of the lake, passing Pahokee and Belle Glade, FL before joining up with Route #1 at Clewiston. Route #1 offers quicker crossings and the ability to carry more draft, while Route #2 allows a more relaxed pace.
At Clewiston, the OWW turns northwestward to Moore Haven, FL where you will enter the Moore Haven Lock. After exiting the lock you will have entered the Caloosahatchee Canal with your course turning more westward. You will then encounter the Ortona Lock near Coffee Mill Hammock. After clearing the Ortona Lock, you will pass LaBelle, Fort Denaud, and Alva, FL before reaching the W.P. Franklin Lock.
Once having departed the W.P. Franklin Lock, you will have entered the Caloosahatchee River in a west/southwestward direction passing Olga, Ft. Myers Shores, and the Fort Myers Metro Area until joining up with the Florida GICW, just north of Punta Rassa, or turning south for Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Okeechobee Waterway, its locks and dams are operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE). For what it’s worth, in the Seminole Indian language, "Lake Okeechobee" means "Big Water", somewhat apropos for the 2nd largest fresh water lake in the United States.
So, if your draft and masthead height allow, you can save 165 NM or more versus going outside and around the southern tip of Florida, the Okeechobee Waterway also provides a more protected route when the weather offshore is kicking up.
There is no formal "Navigation Season" for the Okeechobee Waterway. It is open to vessel traffic year round based on available water depth.
Other factors that need to be considered when transiting the OWW are weather, lock operating hours, and construction or maintenance of waterway structures.
Lock operating hours and non-emergency maintenance or construction is generally posted well in advance in the Local Notice to Mariners (NTM’s.) Sever weather conditions on the other hand can create immediate delays or closures to the Okeechobee Waterway.
Thunder Storms, Tropical Storms, and Hurricanes can also result in the closing of the OWW. In the event of these potentially dangerous conditions the Army Corp of Engineers has developed a policy regarding lock operations.
- 72 hours prior to a Tropical Storm or Hurricane making local landfall locks will be open from 0600 to 2200 to support vessels seeking safe harbor.
- Lock operations will cease 8 hours prior to landfall and all operating bridges will be locked down into a secure position.
- Lock operations will be secured if lightning is observed within five miles of the lock and will not resume operations until lightning has not been seen in the area for 30 minutes.
- Lock operations will be secured when winds exceed 35 MPH.
- Depending on the damage to the waterway or control structures it is possible that the waterway could remain closed until repairs and/or safe navigation can be assured (days to weeks.)
You can view the USACE Policy concerning Tropical System closure of the waterway.
The Okeechobee Waterway stretches 156.4 SM (134.3 NM or 248.8 KM) from its intersection with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway near Stuart on Florida’s east coast and its intersection with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Punta Rassa on Florida’s west coast.
All distances on these pages reference the United States Army Corp of Engineers base measurement of 15.1 SM for the St. Lucie Lock. It should be noted that this differs slightly from NOAA charted data. The differences seem to appear in the last 10.0 SM of the waterway (when westbound) and may be due to changes in the improved channels due to past shoaling.
Aids to Navigation
NOAA Charts #11428 and #11427 provide coverage of the Okeechobee Waterway from its junction with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Stuart to its junction with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at Punta Rassa.
Chart #11428 - Stuart, FL to Ft. Myers, FL provides coverage of the Okeechobee Waterway from Mile Marker 0.0 in Stuart, FL to approximately Mile Marker 135.8, just west of Ft. Myers.
Chart #11427 - Ft. Myers, FL to the GICW Junction continues the coverage from Ft. Myers to the Okeechobee Waterway’s intersection with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway just north of Punta Rassa.
The Okeechobee Waterway is marked with your standard Aids to Navigation (Red and Green Markers.) In addition, they also display yellow triangles or yellow squares on the marks.
When westbound in the OWW (Stuart, FL to Punta Rassa, FL,) marks displaying yellow triangles (typically red) should be kept on your starboard hand and those marked with yellow squares (typically green) should be kept to port.
Because there are exceptions to every rule, caution should be exercised wherever the Okeechobee Waterway intersects or coincides with channels marked by the Lateral Buoyage System. The rule to remember is - When Westbound on the OWW:
Regardless of the Color of the Mark...
Yellow Triangles are ALWAYS kept to starboard
Yellow Squares are ALWAYS kept to port.
There are (5) locks on the Okeechobee Waterway that are of interest to those making the passage across Florida. From east to west they are the St Lucie Lock, the Port Mayaca Lock, the Moore Haven Lock, the Ortona Lock, and the W.P. Franklin Lock. A 6th lock, at Clewiston, FL allows access to a holding basin and marina, but is optional for those stopping or overnighting in Clewiston.
Lock operations are restricted to 10 hours a day. This should be taken into consideration when planning your passage through the OWW.
A complete listing of the Okeechobee Waterway Locks with detailed information on operating times, distances, lifts, estimated transit times, and operating restrictions can be viewed at the Okeechobee Waterway Locks Page.
Water Levels & Channel Depths
Navigational depths along a major portion of the Okeechobee Waterway are directly related to the water levels of Lake Okeechobee. The Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) takes daily water level readings of the lake and in addition to many other uses, this information is then used to compute navigation depths and recommended drafts for vessels transiting the waterway.
Project Depths are:
- 8 Feet St. Lucie River to Fort Myers via Route #1 and 6 Feet via Route #2.
- 10 Feet from Fort Myers to Punta Rassa and;
- 12 Feet from Punta Rassa to the Gulf of Mexico.
The controlling depths are published periodically in the Local NTM’s.
Water depths charted in the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River are based on Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW) and are tidal in nature.
The St. Lucie Canal and Lake Okeechobee are based on Low Water Lake Elevation which is 12.5’. Lake levels above 12.5’ will increase depths while those below 12.5’ will decrease the depths by a like amount.
Depths in the Caloosahatchee Canal are based on a low water elevation of 10’ above mean sea level.
A complete list of suggested routes and recommended drafts can be seen at the Okeechobee Waterway Routes and Drafts Page.
There are 25 or 26 bridges that cross the Okeechobee Waterway depending on the route chosen. Of these, 11 are operating bridges; some with restricted schedules.
A complete listing of all bridges along with their locations, vertical clearances, and operating times is available on our Okeechobee Waterway Bridges page.
Vertical clearances on the OWW from the St. Lucie Lock to the Port Mayaca Lock are based on a St. Lucie Canal pool level of 14.5 feet.
The limiting vertical clearance of the Okeechobee Waterway is 49’± at Port Mayaca.
Okeechobee lockmasters maintain a watch on VHF channel 13 and bridge tenders monitor VHF channel 09.
Transit Times and Speed Restrictions
During normal lock operations, the Okeechobee Waterway passage will obviously depend on your cruising speed. Listed below are a few estimates of what you can expect:
- At 7 knots will require a little over 20 hours.
- At 10 knots, figure 16 hours.
- At 15 knots about 10 hours and;
- At 20 knots you can make the trip in a little under 8 hours.
There are a number of areas along the OWW that have speed restrictions in place per Florida Rule 68D-24.011 and 68D-24.136 as amended.
Additionally, there are numerous marinas, boat ramps, and private docks that have posted no wake signs along the route.
Distances between major points along the Okeechobee Waterway can be found on our Okeechobee Waterway - Distances page. You may find this distance table useful for planning purposes while transiting the waterway.
Notice to Mariners
If your plans are to use the Okeechobee waterway you can visit the Army Corp of Engineers, Jacksonville, FL offices' web site at http://www.saj.usace.army.mil. Once there you can check out the latest navigational bulletins.
Reading that may be of interest to those transiting the Okeechobee Waterway: