Source: George Sass Sr., MotorBoating Magazine
The 154-mile Okeechobee Waterway, which connects Fort Myers and Stuart, Florida, has had its ups and downs since it opened in 1937. Hurricanes and tropical storms have had their damaging effects, and just when the waterway seemed to recover from those events, along came a historic two-year drought to reverse its fortune again. But in August 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reopened the Okeechobee Waterway after drenching rains from Tropical Storm Fay replenished its water levels. I always wanted to travel the waterway, so when I heard Wayne Burdick, president of Beneteau USA, wanted to move his new Swift Trawler 52 from the west coast to the east coast of Florida this winter, I jumped at the chance to join his delivery crew.
Burdick and Laurent Fabr, the yacht’s project manager, gave me a dockside tour of Beneteau’s new model at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show in October, and I was anxious to learn if the boat’s performance equaled its good looks and attractive accommodations. The Beneteau was in St. Petersburg, so I had the chance to run her in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico before entering the Okeechobee in Fort Myers. I met the delivery captain, Geoff Gow, and his deckhand at Beneteau’s dealer near Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play. It’s always a bit awkward not having met your shipmates before a voyage, but we quickly got to know each other by trading sea stories over dinner. It was a good beginning. These guys were serious, responsible professionals, but they were also fun to be with.
The Beneteau was virtually brand new, with just 100 hours on its Volvo D-9s, and Gow had only a few hours to familiarize himself with it before we left the next morning. I was given the owner’s stateroom, which I found to be uniquely attractive and comfortable. Like other midship staterooms in yachts of this size, the Beneteau’s stateroom takes advantage of the vessel’s full beam. But unlike so many others, this cabin is bright and cheery, thanks to two enormous windows set in the hull’s sides. Although they are well above the waterline, I felt like James Mason’s Capt. Nemo aboard Nautilus, peering out to sea as I unpacked my bag.
We left St. Pete the next morning, heading south on Tampa Bay bound for Fort Myers. Because the weather was as perfect as one could hope for, we chose the outside route, exiting Anna Maria Sound at Longboat Pass to run down the Gulf of Mexico. We passed sun worshippers and fishermen along the beaches, and as I watched them, I asked myself why I didn’t get down here more often. It was a cold, gray 25 degrees in my hometown of Annapolis, Maryland.
The Gulf of Mexico was as flat and smooth as a mirror. The 575 hp Volvos propelled the Beneteau along nicely at 19 knots while turning 2,200 rpm and burning less than 40 gph. Unfortunately, the trim tabs had a case of the new-boat blues, so we weren’t able to run the boat at its optimum angle. At 12 to 14 knots, the Beneteau understandably needed some trim to get her nose down. Nonetheless, the boat was able to reach its advertised top speed of 24-plus knots. The ride was smooth and acceleration was impressive. This Joubert-Nivelt hull design is on my list of top performers in the market segment of fast trawlers.
You can run this large cruiser at 18 or 19 knots an attractive option but if you slow down you’ll save fuel and make life on board this stylishly appointed yacht even more civilized. The Beneteau burns just 12 gph at 10.5 knots for a safe range of over 800 nautical miles. While the Swift Trawler is no long-range expedition yacht, it is a good performer at a variety of speeds, and as such, it makes an excellent luxury coastal cruiser.
We ran 50 miles outside to Boca Grande inlet, the entrance to Charlotte Harbor, stopping briefly at Boca Grande Marina for fuel. The inlet is wide, deep and well-marked, making it one of the best choices from Naples to Tampa for navigating between the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Spanning from the northern tip of Cayo Costa State Park to Sanibel Island, Pine Island Sound is home to some of the finest cruising grounds in the country. Having cruised here before, I regretted not having time to stop at Cabbage Key Restaurant for one of their world-famous cheeseburgers and a cold one, but we had a schedule to keep, and just being able to pass by my favorite gunkholes was enough of a treat.
We arrived at the popular Fort Myers Yacht Basin on the south shore of the Caloosahatchee River just before sundown, having run a distance of 40 miles from Boca Grande and a total of 100 miles from St. Pete. During a short walk downtown, we saw streets lined with beautifully restored buildings lit up as if they were part of a movie set. For a city its size, there were surprisingly few people out and about. Even the next morning this former winter home of Thomas Edison seemed unusually quiet and relaxed.
Our next stop was the town of Clewiston on the west side of Lake Okeechobee. To get there, we ran 60 miles along the Caloosahatchee River and Canal and through the Franklin and Ortona Locks, which gradually brought us up to the level of the lake. Locking through was easy, as two of us handled the bow and stern lines while Gow stayed at the helm.
This part of the waterway is especially attractive: the variety of waterfront homes ranges from modest dwellings to more substantial, but rarely did we see one of those oversize McMansions that are common in other parts of Florida. We also passed a number of cozy marinas, protected anchorages and small towns like Labelle and Moore Haven, ports that would make a more leisurely transit along the waterway a fun adventure. Gow showed his professionalism by keeping a watchful eye on both shores, slowing down to idle speed to prevent wake damage to docked boats or small skiffs fishing the banks. In most cases, boats were stored on lifts a sign that not everyone is so considerate.
The small lock at Clewiston is usually left open during normal lake levels, so we proceeded directly through to the 700-foot face dock at Roland Martin Marina, where the legendary “Little Man” took our lines and checked us in. If you’ve ever baited a hook and wet a line, you know of Roland Martin and his TV shows.Years ago, it was at this marina that I discovered the thrill of going 75 mph in a small, spackle-painted bass boat with a huge outboard. It can get a little buggy in this part of the world, so you quickly learn to keep your mouth shut when under way. I also remember trying to finish a famous Okee Bubba Burger served at the Tiki Bar, but I was younger and thinner then.
In this part of the world, you also meet people doing the Great Loop. On this trip, we talked with fellow cruisers about their travels and boats, and many were curious about the Beneteau Swift Trawler. Gow graciously gave tours, during which we heard many wows, oohs and aahs.
From Clewiston there are two routes across Lake Okeechobee: a 20-mile direct route and a 30-plus-mile “rim route.” At over 730 square miles, Okeechobee is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country, and it is known for being especially rough during a blow because of its shallow depth. But again, we had perfect weather, so we took the direct route, arriving at the Port Mayaca lock and the entrance to the St. Lucie Canal. The canal stretches for 20 miles and leads to the St. Lucie River and eventually to Stuart.
At the canal’s halfway point is the rural community of Indiantown, the location of Indiantown Marina. With slips for transients and a 30- and 50-ton lift, this 28-acre facility can be a convenient stopover for cruisers before they get to the busy port of Stuart or before they head across the lake.
Nine miles from Stuart, we entered St. Lucie lock, where we dropped 14 feet before reaching the level of the St. Lucie River. It was low tide on the river and although the Beneteau draws only 4 feet 3 inches, we had very little water under our keel in the narrow channel leading to the downtown area. Passing a 50-foot sport-fisher hard aground in the channel, we proceeded at idle speed, taking comfort in knowing the Beneteau’s keel was lower than its running gear.
Gow needed to get the Beneteau to Fort Pierce for its next phase of dealer commissioning, so I got off in Stuart near the “crossroads,” where mile 987 of the ICW intersects mile zero of the Okeechobee Waterway. This fascinating route offers an endless variety of cruising opportunities, and Beneteau’s Swift Trawler 52 is designed to take full advantage of them.
DISP.: 35,274 lbs.
FUEL: 1,057 gals.
WATER: 264 gals.
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