Plop plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is

I've always wanted to cross the Florida Peninsula via the Okeechobee waterway, but my sailboat masts have always been too tall. There is a bridge that is only 45’ off the water and my shortest mast was 56’ tall. I now have a motorboat, a trawler that is only about 17’ high, so I now am able to boat across the middle of the state. We live in Stuart on the eastern end of a waterway that goes through the Saint Lucie Canal across the peninsula of Florida and across Lake Okeechobee. From there the Caloosahatchee River takes you all the way to Fort Myers, 156 statute or 134 nautical miles away by water. Captain Dave met me at 7:00 AM and we loaded the boat. As I bent over to untie one of the dock lines my phone fell out of the pocket of my jacket into the water. Like most people I am dependent on my phone. I spend way too much time looking at it. My options were to try to retrieve it by asking Dave to jump in, do it myself, or get by without it for the next few days. I chose the latter. I thought it would be good for me to live without it for a while. I cheated a bit since I had my iPad along. I was able to access the Internet, make phone calls, and send texts. At least I couldn't keep it in my pocket and didn't always have it with me. It was a godsend for navigation, getting information about places to dock the boat and eat. It also gave us the weather forecast. I've always loved the challenge of sailing around the southern tip of Florida in open water and through the Keys, rather than be confined to the narrow Waterway, rivers, or other canals. That said I did want to see what was in the middle of this state I've come to love. Florida is populated by many diverse people. The east coast has many visitors and expats from northeastern states, the Caribbean, and Latin America, The west coast of the state seems to attract people from the Midwest. I wanted to meet and interact with those who live in the center part of the state. Natives, lifelong residents, not snowbirds. A few months ago, we had a taste of that by camping near Arcadia FL some 50 miles north of Ft. Myers and east of Sarasota. Since the lake is several feet above sea level, you need to pass through locks. Locks answer on VHF channel 13. You call the lock tender as you approach and ask for a passage. They will tell you when you can enter the lock. A lock can be thought of as a large bathtub with openings on either end. You enter the lock; they close the gate behind you, and either flood or drain the lock with the water from the gate in front of you. This allows you to go up several feet to the level of Lake Okeechobee on the way, and down several feet beyond the lake. There are two locks on the eastern side of the Lake and three on the western side. You approach the lock and wait for the tender to give you the OK to proceed on the radio. There is also a stoplight that is red until you can proceed. It then turns green when it is safe to enter the lock. We were both required to wear our life jackets when the boat was in the lock. Once inside the lock there are ropes tied to the banks of the locks hanging down from the walls on either side. Sometimes you are told to tie the boat to its starboard (right) side, sometimes to the port side, or they may say you can choose either side. While the helmsman maneuvers the boat alongside the wall, the other person grabs ropes and attaches them to the boat bow (front) and stern (back) of the boat. This is much easier with two people. It had been years since I had gone through a lock. Since the trawler handles differently than my sailboat, I took some getting used to. The first couple of times Captain Dave tried the line to the bow a little too tightly and I didn't understand how to back the stern up to the wall of the lock. I ended up crosswise in the lock for a bit. The lock is 50 feet wide, the boat 39 feet long, so I didn’t hit the other wall. Eventually I figured out to have him tie a spring line (a rope is a rope until it is on a boat, then it is called a line) to the amidships (middle) cleat first then attach the bow and the stern lines. Once the boat was tied to the wall, I had to shut the motor off. I then went down to handle the stern while Dave took the bow. On the way up, each of us had to take up the slack in the lines as the boat raised with the water flowing into the lock. The current tended to swing the boat back and forth so you had to keep a firm hand on the line to prevent that. In some of the locks we were the only boat, in others there were one or two others in the lock with us. That allowed us to chat about our boats, where we were headed, where we came from. In one lock a manatee surface between our boats evidently heading upstream. As with the bridge tenders, some of the lock tenders were friendly and chatty others said little. The first 10 miles from Stuart has shores lined with large, beautiful waterfront homes with their own docks and large enclosures around their pools. Vegetation was varied from large palm trees to live Oaks to grass. Captain Dave saw an alligator, we saw several waterbirds, a few cows, and some horses. There wasn't much boat traffic coming or going on the canal. The boat throws a wake at speed. Several places are no wake zones, so we had to slow down for them. The second lock leads into Lake Okeechobee. From there we had two choices. Motor across the Lake or around the edge. We chose the former. The Lake is about 35 miles across. It is the 8th largest freshwater Lake in the United States and the second largest contained entirely within one of the contiguous 48 states. The wind was out of the West Southwest, right on the nose. But since we weren't sailing but motoring it didn't have much effect except maybe slowing us down a knot or so. Lake is wide enough that in the middle you cannot see the opposite shore. We were passed by one boat and met a couple on the way over. There is a shallow reef with a narrow, dredged channel part way across the Lake. We had to find the marks showing us the way. Fortunately, my iPad has a charting program (note, maps are depiction of land, charts are used to navigate on the water) and a GPS showing you your position and where you want to go. Once we reached the opposite shore, we entered a lock lowering us to the Caloosahatchee River. Just passed the lock is the small town of Moore Haven Florida. They have a city dock right on the River that you can tie up to. It includes electricity and costs a dollar a foot a night. You pay at the City Hall right next to the dock. They were closed on weekends and I was going to drop some money in the mail slot but forgot. We stopped briefly on the way back on Tuesday and I had Jim pay them. A jolly couple grabbed our lines at the dock. They were on a beautiful cutter named My Bonnie, docked right behind us. Although it had beautiful lines and was extremely well made I could pretty much guess that it was home built. I asked if they had made it and they proudly said yes, had it taken them 10 years in their backyard in Cocoa FL. Over the last 20 years they had sailed it to the Caribbean several times and to the Bahamas. It is wonderful to meet people who with limited means are able to construct a seaworthy and comfortable vessel with their own hands and then sail it across oceans to the islands and back. The online cruising guide said that the Eagles Club a block away allowed people on a boat to eat there. We walked over and had one of the best fried fish dinners I've had in ages. Just $16.00 including the big potato, a vegetable, and dessert. The place was packed with locals. All great people; evidently they have been friends for years. This is a small-town version of the bar in Cheers. Our waitress was a happy, friendly middle aged lady missing her four upper front teeth. Obviously, it didn't bother her because she flashed a wide smile when taking our order. Captain Dave went back to watch a football game. He was low on cash, so he asked where the closest ATM was. He was told it was about a mile and a half away. He said he would walk but one of the locals said no, he would give Dave a ride. Since he was a visiting member, he couldn't buy drinks himself, so he had to give some money to one of the members who paid for his drinks. In a way I was glad I didn't have my phone because I might have been tempted to take a picture of some of the patrons including our waitress. One guy had a very wrinkled, aged face with a large bulbous nose with several pea sized growths on it. The bartender was cute and young with short shorts and a long blonde wig. Three of the patrons near us appeared to be in their 50s or 60s and I could hear them complaining about the 20 somethings at the opposite end of the bars singing and dancing to the music on their bar stools obviously well into their cups early in the evening. If it weren't for COVID-19 I would have loved to have sat down and talked to them. I’d like to ask them some questions to find more about their lives. I am sure they have some stories to tell. Despite problems they may be having, they seem to be happy and content with their plight in life. The town has no Walmart and very few shops. After dinner I went back to the boat and slept. I got up in the morning and walked back to the Eagles. They open at 8:00 for breakfast. We both had 3 blueberry pancakes 2 eggs, 2 slices of bacon and grits for $7.00 each. I had forgotten to pack a coffee maker, and we didn’t have pots or pans. I did pack a skillet and a stainless-steel colander. I boiled water in the tea kettle, put a paper towel in the colander, scooped in ground coffee, poured the boiling water through it and drained the coffee into a skillet. Any port in the storm. After breakfast, we continued down the River through three locks and on to Fort Myers City Yacht Basin, a large modern friendly place where we fueled the boat and tied up for the night. I called my longtime sailing friend Jim. He came and picked me up and took him to their house they were renting in Cape Coral. His lovely wife Cathy fixed us dinner and we caught up on friends we knew. I had Jim take me back to the boat and spent a peaceful night at the dock. I had intended to spend three or four days in Fort Myers taking them up and down the Gulf Coast in my new to me boat, stopping at a few of my favorite haunts in that area. Unfortunately, Cathy’s son was taken ill back in Kansas City and so she was flying out on Thursday to help babysit his kids. Instead of staying, I decided to head back to Stuart. Cathy brought Jim back to the boat in the morning along with McDonald's food and coffee. We wolfed it down, started the motor, and headed back across the waterway. Jim is probably one of my best friends. Although we didn't know each other well in dental school and practiced on opposite sides of Kansas City, twenty years ago Jim's wife suggested I should take him sailing. We have since then had countless adventures sailing up and down the East and Gulf coasts of the United States. Two summers ago, we sailed to Bimini and back. It always seems like when we go, we have some misadventure and great stories to tell. Comparatively, this trip was uneventful. Jim was amazed by the locks as he had never been through one. They truly are an engineering Marvel. We spent the night at Roland Martin's Marina in Clewiston FL. It was just a small floating dock that we tied the boat to. This area is famous for bass fishing. They held a bass fishing tournament on Saturday. We saw dozens of large fast bass boats docking and loading on their trailers. Airboats are also common, and we saw a few of them. Although the Marina had been there since the 80s, they had a big modern office with a shop selling T-shirts and many other items. We had dinner at the tiki hut. We shared a fried alligator tail appetizer, Jim had fish tacos, and I had shrimp and grits--quite tasty. The bar was also populated by locals all having a good time, lots of kids, twenty somethings, middle aged, and older people. One guy walked in with a jacket, camouflage pants, and a small black and white dog on a leash. Jim commented if I ever saw him walking into a bar with a dog on a leash, to just shoot him. I promised him I would. The next day we crossed the Lake, went through the two locks and down the canal. By midafternoon we were back at Stuart at my home dock. It was an uneventful but most pleasant trip. We had a light drizzle during the second morning and early afternoon but not enough to get us wet. There was some fog on the Lake but not enough to impede navigation. It is always great to get together with old friends you haven't seen for awhile and catch up on what they have been up to, as well as what our friends and relatives are doing. Thanks to Cathy for lending me Jim for this trip. I was able to survive without my phone. I’m sure I missed a few phone calls and texts from folks, but they will eventually get a hold of me if it is important. I was able to be more present, enjoy the scenery, think, relax, and enjoy the trip more than if I had spent half of the time looking at my phone. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime, just leave it home, don’t drop it in the drink.

My Bonnie

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