Dam it, Florida!

For centuries, man has been attempting to tame the elements. Nature flows inconvenient, and man’s hubris takes charge. This was the case in Florida when, in 1937, a series of dams and locks were built to provide an easy water route across Florida.

The Okeechobee locks allow boats to pass east–west across the state rather than traveling the long route around. The change in water flow also aerated and created immense viable land for development and farming. It made economic sense at the time, but Mother Nature doesn’t always like these sorts of things.

Machiavelli wrote the following poem, circa 1500, in regards to a failed attempt, along with  Leonardo da Vinci, to alter the course of the Arno River in Italy. They did this to “prevent flooding” but the real reason was to supposedly confiscate the riches of a seaport life from Pisa in favor of their beloved Florence. 

The river’s fierce current, its wild

Extremity attained, crushing all manner of things

Wherever it reaches

Making one side high and another low

It carves away the bluffs, altering riverbed and river bottom

Overflowing as if to do battle with Mother Earth

Fortune also is unkind, boldly her long tresses

Disarranged — now here, now there,

One after the other, transform all things

(by Niccolò Machiavelli, excerpted from “The Guest Cat” by Takashi Hiraide)

In January, we took three weeks to do an interesting Florida-centric circumnavigation… that is, we did a full loop around the lower part of the state.  We had been studying the everglades problem and thought it would be educational to experience the man-made locks channel as part of our studies.

To start, we left Miami on a clear day in early January running south and east towards Key Largo.

Florida is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Caribbean Sea to the south, the Gulf of Mexico on the west and the states of Alabama and Georgia to the north. Prior to the 1930’s it was not possible to cross the middle of Florida from the west coast to the east.

Our route:  (locations we stopped to spend at least one night each)

Miami  –  Key Largo  –  Marathon  –  Key West  –  (back to) Marathon  –  Cape Sable  –  Naples  –  North Captiva  –  Ft. Myers  –  Moore Haven  –  Stuart  –  Jupiter  –  Boca Raton  –  Ft. Lauderdale  –  Miami  

Timbalero, docked at the Moore Haven city dock, half way through the Ft. Myers-Okeechobee locks channel. The dock is a short walk to a public library, thrift store and park.

The man-made Okeechobee channel is relatively narrow most of the way through. It took us 2 days to cross the channel and the lake, from Ft. Myers on the west coast, to Port St. Lucie on the east. We did not encounter much, in terms of traffic, and we maintained a relatively slow pace. The Lake itself covers over 730 square miles. Our route took us across the lower portion of the lake where there is a marked channel, spanning about 30 miles in diameter.

Lake Okeechobee is one of three Florida estuaries that are in long term collapse due to the damming and re-directing of its natural flow. The alteration of natural fresh water from the Kissimmee, Okeechobee and Everglades watersheds have had an enormous economic impact on the fishing, marine industry, tourism and housing markets in south Florida. Apparently there are plans in place to rectify the on-going environmental damage, but social awareness and political will are needed to make it happen. Could we have crossed the Okeechobee channel prior to the man-made dams and water re-direction?  No. Would there be roads, homes and high-rises south of Naples and Ft. Lauderdale? Probably not a lot.

The science was fascinating to see and discuss, and the ride was thrilling. In particular, the LOCKS. We went through five different lock systems on our course to crossing Lake Okeechobee, ranging from an eight-foot rise to a 13-foot drop. It was exciting to pull into a lock knowing that we had a short amount of time to tie up our boat before the gates closed and water started pumping.

This is how it worked:

  1. Upon approach of a lock, call the Lock Operator and request an opening.
  2. Lock Operator prepares the lock for us and when he is ready he displays a green “GO” light.
  3. Move forward into the lock with (for our boat, 4) starboard side fenders lowered.
  4. Once inside, quickly grab lines from the lock wall and half-tie around cleats on 4 locations (Forward, Forward Spring, Aft Spring and Stern).
  6. While we are tying up, the Lock Operator is closing the aft gate behind us. Once that gate is locked, the forward gate begins to open slowly.
  7. While the forward gate is open only slightly, the rush of water in (or out) provides a tremendous current. The pressure, the power of the water and the current create serious motion in the lock and can damage an un-prepared boat.
  8. During this time, we each hold tight to our lines, keeping lines half-cleated, while inching up (or down) the attached line with tension.
  9. Once the boat has risen (or dropped) to the new level, we wait until the gate is completely open and the Lock Operator gives us a green light to exit the lock.
  10. Once Tony drops his line and moves to the helm, he puts Timbalero in gear. He then gives the signal and Sophia, Oliver and I toss our lines to the wall, and give a hearty push off from the side of the lock.
  11. Once we are out of the lock area , we pull our fenders back over the life-lines until the next lock.
  12. High fives and big smiles all around!

Each lock maneuver took all four of our crew doing critical jobs to ensure that Timbalero was safe while the lock waters were in motion. The fenders were key, also the timing and holding lines tight were jobs of responsibility and the kids were every bit as important in their roles as Tony and myself. The first lock was terrifying, but after the fifth lock, we were pros.

Port Mayaca marked the completion of our lake crossing. Though we still had the Port Lucie Lock ahead of us.

We often talk about water current, tides, pressure and navigation but the South Florida-Okeechobee circumnavigation was a stellar opportunity to learn first-hand the power of water and how a locks system really works. We got to see how the waterways are being slowly improved to re-balance the estuaries.  We discussed the complicated reality of modern development, and the profitable sugar cane and cattle farms that exist because of the (now) dry land. As a plus, we had an opportunity to practice our Timbalero crew “lock” teamwork!  Panama, anyone?


See more about the Everglades freshwater flow situation at: http://www.captainsforcleanwater.org.

More on the Locks:  There are (5) locks on the OWW. 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.

Detailed information on crossing Lake Okeechobee can be found here:  www.offshoreblue.com

Did Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli really try to divert a river? Why yes, they did and for economic gain just like Florida! See “historicallyawesome.wordpress.com” for some fun facts about that. Buy the book:  Fortune is a River.

The Arno is a river in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is the most important river of central Italy after the Tiber. Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, politician, philosopher, and writer of the Renaissance period. 1469-1527 (Wikipedia) 

The Guest Cat was written in Japanese by Takashi Hiraide in 2001. Translated by Eric Selland in 2014. This book is completely unrelated to this post, other than I found Machiavelli’s poem inside, on page 103. A delightful book; I highly recommend.


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