From Moore Haven, the route heads down the Caloosahatchee Canal and through shallow Lake Hicpochee to the Ortona Lock at Mile 94 then into the third part of the waterway, the Caloosahatchee River — one of the prettiest and most easily navigable of rivers.
Going downriver — westward — the waterway runs down an eight-mile cut, past The Glades RV Resort and Marina and Glades Boat Storage at Mile 89, then through Ortona Lock at Mile 93.5 to the charming old town of LaBelle at Mile 103. A mile or so east of town is Port LaBelle Marina with new docks accommodating boats up to 80-feet, moorings, and a lovely cove that’s good for anchoring out. In LaBelle, there’s Belle Hatchee Marina and a city dock with phone number on Chart 17 and CH 16 is still monitored a good deal of the time. We're told that dockage and water are free for three days, and then you must leave for eight days before you're welcome back!
At Mile 116 is the town of Alva. Farther downstream, Rialto Harbor once again welcomes transients.
From there down to Fort Myers, the river becomes gradually more natural and less channelized. Where the Corps cut off oxbow bends of the old riverbed, they left wonderful anchorages along the way, some with good depths and bottoms but others less suited. Get local information or feel your way with care.
Seven miles below Alva at Mile 121 you are eased back down to sea level at Franklin Lock, which has dockage and hookups. Four miles downstream there’s a cluster of facilities at Fort Myers Shores that includes Sweetwater Landing. They handle up to 100' at the docks and there's dry storage up to 31'. The river below Franklin Lock is both a playground and hurricane refuge for boatpeople in the Fort Myers area, and there are thousands of them, but the widening river can absorb a lot of traffic.
Five miles farther, past the wilderness shores of Caloosahatchee Wildlife Refuge on the north shore and Beautiful Island on the south, the river opens up onto the Fort Myers waterfront, justly famous for its beauty and its marine facilities alike.
The Waterway winds for about 15 miles through Fort Myers and Cape Coral, a truly urban stretch (described in detail in the Sun Coast section of this directory) then into the narrow channel between Shell Point and Big Shell Island. At this point the broad and gentle Caloosahatchee, more than a mile wide astern, narrows to a third that width, speeds up, and starts dumping its cargo of sand and silt. The result is a dogleg around Shell Point with tricky currents, constant shoaling, and marker-to-marker attention to the helm for a few miles.
But then, as you pick your way between the islets and spoil banks of San Carlos Bay, you approach Mile Zero of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and yet another of those delightful no-lose decisions common to Florida cruising: to the north are Pine Island and uncrowded cruising in Matlacha Pass; to the southwest are the many charms of Sanibel and Captiva Islands and the legendary cruising grounds of Pine Island Sound; and to the southeast are the equally favored waters — plus the many and varied attractions — of Fort Myers Beach and Estero Bay.
Under normal conditions, all five locks on the Okeechobee Waterway operate from 0700 to 1900 daily. Operators monitor Channels 13 and 16 (not 9) and respond to a two-long-two-short horn signal. Bridges keep similar hours, usually 0600 to 2130 or 2200. Bridge tenders monitor Channel 9 and often 13 as well. Railroad bridges are normally left open unless a train is approaching.
After-hours bridge openings can be scheduled on four hours' notice (although running the waterway at night is generally discouraged); any after-hours lock operation request is restricted to commercial vessels only.
For information on state highway bridges over the Okeechobee Waterway, call ICA, handling questions for the Florida Dept. of Transportation: 866-335-9696.
Lee County's Alva Bridge (239-533-8655 x30140) andHendry County's Fort Denaud Bridge (863-675-5222) are also listed on Chart 17 and are NOT handled by ICA.
All of the locks and most of the bridges have docks or at least pilings on both sides where boats can tie up to wait for an opening or spend the night if necessary.
But never forget: The lake level is not a constant. And a change in the lake level changes both depths and clearances. Also, locks need work, bridges get stuck, and if you're in the middle of a 152-mile waterway you don't want unpleasant surprises.
BE SURE TO CHECK the Corps of Engineers website or call their Clewiston office (863-983-8101) before entering the waterway. It is also recommended that you continue to check with lock tenders and marinas along the way for conditions ahead.
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