FLORIDA: EAST TO WEST COAST ACCROSS THE OKEECHOBEE WATERWAY

Okeechobee Waterway - FL Map

Okeechobee Waterway – FL Map

Since arriving back in the U.S., after four (4) years cruising the Caribbean, we have received many inquiries about our next port(s) of call, and go-forward cruising plans. Long story short, after arriving in North Palm Beach, FL, we were at a cross road. Either head down the East Coast of FL, towards the Keys, around the southern tip of FL , and up the FL West Coast, or set a course northwest, to cut across the state via the Okeechobee Waterway.

The Okeechobee Waterway is a man-made waterway that stretches from Stuart, on the East Coast of Florida, to Fort Myers, on Florida’s West Coast. A series of canals, including the Caloosahatchee River to the west, and St. Lucie Canal to the east, link Florida’s East and West Coasts to Lake Okeechobee in the center of the state.

Okeechobee Waterway & Locks Map

Okeechobee Waterway & Locks Map

We opted for the Okeechobee Waterway since it was a shorter route, and we were coming up on some deadlines for re-enrolling the boys in a bricks and mortar school. Hence, we positioned ourselves in North Palm Beach until the next appropriate weather window, and locks’ schedule, allowed us to cross from the East Coast to the West Coast of Florida.

During our E-W Florida crossing, we encountered countless car and railroad bridges: swing bridges, draw bridges, fixed bridges, etc. Some, we could pass right under because they were high enough for us to clear.

Bridge

Bridge

Bridge

Bridge

At lower clearance bridges, we had to hail the various bridge operators on the VHF radio to  have them open the bridge so that we could safely pass through.

Draw Bridge

Draw Bridge

While transiting the “Locks,” (a series of water-like elevators), we positioned the Pilots’ Discretion in the lock basins, which then closed and either added or drained water before opening to let us out at the appropriate water level on the other side.

Along the way, we made stops at Roland & Mary Martin Marina, in Clewiston, Fort Myers, and Venice. We had dolphins and jet skiers hitch rides in our wake along the way, and the sunsets were as spectacular as ever.

Sunset in Venice, FL (2018)

Sunset in Venice, FL (2018)

At long last, we reached the Anclote River, Tarpon Springs, FL. We slowly made our way up the river to our home port, Port Tarpon Marina, which had served as our departure point four (4) years previous.

Theresa refueling, Port Tarpon

Theresa refueling, Port Tarpon

Randy refueling, Port Tarpon Marina

Randy refueling, Port Tarpon Marina

Ronan, Randy & Ryan, back where it all started, Port Tarpon

Ronan, Randy & Ryan, back where it all started, Port Tarpon

Sunset from Pilots' Discretion, back in her home port slip at Port Tarpon Marina

Sunset from Pilots’ Discretion, back in her home port slip at Port Tarpon Marina

To say it was a bittersweet surreal moment would be a dramatic understatement.

Mark Twain has been attributed with having said:

Throw of the bowlines ...

Our family is most certainly not disappointed. We are tremendously grateful for our unique experiences and adventures. We have lived the dream, and will continue to do so. 

Since returning to Florida, it has been a whirlwind of nonstop activity reintegrating as part-time landlubbers. The changes have been quick and dramatic, some of them easy, others more challenging, We will provide updates on the reintegration process after we are more settled. In any event, it is all part of the next leg of our journey, which includes, among other things, a new addition to our crew! More about that in our next post ….

45 foot USCG patrol boat pulling up astern of Pilots’ Discretion

6100 Nautical Miles Later, Pilots’ Discretion Returns to the United States – by Randy

Early in the morning on June 6, 2018, Pilots’ Discretion eased out of her slip at the Old Bahama Bay Marina, on Grand Bahama Island, and pointed her bow west for what would be her final international leg of our 4-year Caribbean odyssey. There were brisk winds of 15-20 knots out of the west, as we passed the breakwater heading out into the Gulfstream. The resultant seas were not particularly large (4-6 ft), but the period of the waves was a very short 2-4 seconds, giving us an uncomfortable ride. I don’t think anybody aboard was really looking forward to this day, and it just felt appropriate that the sea conditions were not unsafe, but not pleasant either. We pressed on through early morning showers and passed several other yachts going the other way, heading east toward the Bahamas.

When we were about 20 miles west of Grand Bahama Island the seas flattened out and the skies cleared. Florida was already clearly visible on our radar, but not yet on our visual horizon. Four hours after our departure, the waterfront condos of West Palm Beach became visible as we headed for the Lake Worth Inlet. After cruising for days at a time seeing few boats at all in various parts of the Caribbean, the high level of traffic off the coast of Florida was just one more subtle reminder that we were reentering our home environment.

As if on cue to reenforce that point, a U.S. Coast Guard 33′ patrol boat pulled along side of us and advised us that they would be conducting a routine boarding of our vessel. Those of you that have followed our blog in the past already know that I am a former Coastie. What many of you may not realize is that Theresa served as the Vice President of a major maritime safety organization for many years. As part of her duties there, she interacted with the Coast Guard at the highest levels (she counts several past US Coast Guard Commandants among her personal friends). Some boaters are put off by the Coast Guard boardings, that is not the case with the Pilots’ Discretion. Our entire crew has a tremendous amount of respect for the work that the men and women of the USCG perform each and every day. For me personally, and my family, having the Coast Guard board us as we approached our home country represented an important symbolic welcome home. Click photo below for video

The young Coast Guard boarding team came aboard our vessel and reviewed our paperwork and our safety systems. Happily, they did not find any discrepancies. After they had completed their official duties we had a chance to share stories of “The Guard.” It was a lot of fun to compare notes since long ago I had served on many Coast Guard boarding teams in the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Sea. Ryan and Ronan were fascinated by the patrol boat and wanted to know how much power it had and how fast it would go (40+ knots). The Coast Guard crew was thorough and professional at all times. I hope those Coasties sensed how proud our family is of their organization and the individuals that serve our country via the USCG.

After the Coast Guard departed we entered the Lake Worth inlet, then turned north on the ICW toward the North Palm Beach Marina. One hour later, we pulled alongside the fuel dock as a thunderstorm broke out with a torrential downpour. Soaking wet, the crew of Pilot’s Discretion refueled her and cleared inbound with US Customs. Pilots’ Discretion is now back in the United States, our journey is nearly complete.

CLOSING THE LOOP, ATLANTIS & THE BERRY ISLANDS – by Randy

It is hard to believe that our family odyssey aboard Pilots’ Discretion is almost at the four year point. During our time aboard we have put in excess of six thousand miles under our keel, that is a lot of traveling by boat. We have seen and experienced so many diverse and unique places and cultures that it is now the norm for us to begin our day wondering what new adventure awaits. Florida is now nearly on the horizon and in just a few more days, we will be reinserting ourselves into our land based world, but for now we still have some traveling to do.

Our last port of call, Atlantis Marina, Nassau was not typical of the places we have visited along the way. Atlantis, to me, represents a combination of Las Vegas and a water based Disney World on steroids. Ryan and Ronan wasted no time finding the various water slides, while Theresa and I really enjoyed the front row seats we had at the marina as the various megayachts came and went. Click photo below for video:

It was a lot of fun to see, and certainly worth the visit, but it could not be more different than our next stop, the Berry Islands. The Berry Islands are a group of small cays that generally run northwest of New Providence (the island that Nassau calls home) for about 60 miles. The Berrys are largely undeveloped, or owned by private individuals and cruise ship companines, so they are about as far away from the bright lights and hustle and bustle of Atlantis as you can get.

One of the things that immediately struck me as we approached the Berry Islands was that the water is absolutely crystal clear. The Bahamas, in general, are known for their beautiful clear water, but the Berrys take clear water to the next level. It was, at times, hard to believe that our depth sounders were reading 50-60 feet while we were looking over the side at various marine life such as star fish, sharks and rays gliding beneath the Pilots’ Discretion. Click photo below for video:

The Berry Islands feel like a natural spot to wrap up our family exploring. We all got to see things that were not part of our norm. Sort of the signature for what has been an amazing four years of growth for our boys, and Theresa and I as well.

We left the Berrys on a direct course to West End, Grand Bahama Island. Ironic, in that our first stop outside the United States four years ago was, the still charming, Old Bahama Bay Marina, on West End, Grand Bahama Island. Click photo below for video:

After our stop on Grand Bahama Island it was time for the Pilots’ Discretion to cross the Gulf Stream westbound. Additional updates to follow.

HIGHBOURNE CAY & ALLEN CAY, BAHAMAS – by Ronan

After Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, we pulled into port in Highbourne Cay Marina, where we were able to see nurse sharks, and reef sharks lurking around in the water right under our boat! After we were docked, we went bike riding around the island, found an isolated beach, and went kayaking. The next day, we took a short (5 minute) dingy ride over to Allen Cay,  which is an uninhabited cay full of wild iguanas. There were none on the beach as we approached, but with the hum of our dinghy motor approaching, dozens crawled out from the brush seeking fruit and vegetable snacks. Click the photo below for a video (v-log) of our adventures!

We were advised to be careful because the iguanas have sharp teeth and will bite if you get too close.

Iguana, Allen Cay, Bahamas (2018)

Iguana, Allen Cay, Bahamas (2018)

Our next of port of call, after Highbourne and Allen Cays, was Atlantis, Nassau . . .

P.S. There are no buses on Highbourne Cay!

Ryan & Ronan @ the “Bus Stop,” Highbourne Cay, Bahamas (June 2018)

Ryan & Ronan @ the “Bus Stop,” Highbourne Cay, Bahamas (June 2018)

 

 

EXUMA CAYS LAND SEA PARK, BAHAMAS – by Ryan

After stopping at Big Majors Spot, we headed north to Warderick Wells (the Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park). We spent a couple nights on a mooring ball and went hiking and kayaking during our stay. We hiked the main trail to Boo Boo Hill where we looked through the large pile of drift wood for boat names that we recognized. We kayaked past the park ranger’s station and hugged the coast until we got to the isolated Lucky Spot Beach. One morning while we were in the park, a nurse shark was hanging out behind our boat all morning. Click on the video below to check out our adventures at Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Our next stop was Allan Cay …

Swimming piglets at Big Majors, Bahamas

WHEN PIGS SWIM! BIG MAJORS SPOT, BAHAMAS (MAY 2018) – by Theresa

Continuing with our video logs, after leaving Staniel Cay astern, we next stopped at Big Majors Spot, home to the infamous swimming pigs. (Click on photo below for video.) The three little piglets swimming ashore, 0.55 seconds in to the video, were absolutely priceless!

The pigs swim out to greet the arriving dinghies, aiming to have their efforts rewarded with snacks. Although most of the swimming/beach pigs were docile and friendly, there was one rather large and aggressive pig. The posted warning advised beachgoers to beware of the pig (pictured above and below) appropriately named “Big Mama Karma.”  She was given that moniker because, like karma, she had been known to come back and bite individuals in the backside!

Big Mama Karma, Big Majors, Bahamas

Big Mama Karma, Big Majors, Bahamas

After Big Majors Spot, we next set a course north to Exuma Land and Sea Park…