“Ever thought of riding across Florida from the East coast to West? It’s about 150 miles or so each way. Gotta cross Lake Okeechobee to do it too.”
“Let’s do it,” was the reply and that started the planning. That conversation between Lee Micheau and Steve Chown, of the Jacksonville Jet Riders and Central Florida Jet Riders, kicked off the Five Locks Ride. The Five Locks refers to the St. Lucie, Port Mayaca, Moore Haven, Ortona, and the WP Franklin Locks that regulates the near 30 feet of potential elevation changes along the Okeechobee Waterway. After months of planning, the ride was presented to the members of both the Central Florida Jet Riders and the Jacksonville Jet Riders. A total of 21 intrepid riders from Florida and Georgia including Steve and Landen Dill, a father and 9-year-old son duo, made the trek on 18 skis, with one being a 2-stroke Sea-Doo RX!
The trip was set for May 16th with the return trip on the 17th. That meant about 300 miles of riding, sun and fun in just two days. The group set off from Sandsprit Park in Stuart, Florida. With ride leaders Steve Chown, Dana Callan, Tina Johnson, Brian Dill and Lee Micheau, we traveled down the St. Lucie River passing under seven bridges to the amusement of fisherman wondering what all the rush was about!
Taking in the beautiful scenery, we came upon the first Lock of the day, the St. Lucie Lock with its nearly 15 feet of lift proved to all the riders that this would be an epic trip. With boaters and on-lookers amazed at the mass of jet skiers, taking pics, giving well wishes and waves, we journeyed on to our first fuel stop of the day. Indiantown wasn’t very far from take off, but a welcome opportunity to top off before moving on to the next lock, the Port Mayaca Lock and then Lake Okeechobee.
The Port Mayaca Lock is the eastern gateway to Lake Okeechobee. Its 2-foot lift varies with the lake’s water level. The Port Mayaca Lock opens to the amazing Lake Okeechobee, or “Lake O.” With it being the largest lake in Florida and the 7th largest lake in the US, the day’s route covered the scenic rim route, which took us by natural sites galore, fishermen and kayakers, who were surprised to see that many skis under way. We made our way to the second fuel stop of the day at Roland and Martins Marina in Clewiston, FL for a much needed break, lunch and time to share stories.
With re-fueling taking some time and running a tad behind on schedule, the group picked up the pace along the rim route to the third lock, Moore Haven Lock. With its 2-foot lift like its sister lock to the east, the Moore Haven Lock was our middle lock of the day. The group quickly made its way through and passed under several spectacular bridges down the Caloosahatchee Canal. Passing by scenic farms and Lake Hicpochee to the south, we rode the near 15 miles to the fourth lock of the day, Ortona Lock.
Ortona Lock has 8-feet of lift and having been on the water for nearly 7 hours at this point, the group pushed on toward the third fuel stop of the day at Port Labelle, for some to empty auxiliary tanks and others hitting Calusa Jacks Marina for those needing a full top off. While pit-stopping, the riders shared the day’s details with the locals, getting a few bewildered looks and even a few “Oh my’s,” finally all juiced up we headed to the fifth and final lock of the day, the WP Franklin Lock
Slipping in to the lock with less than an hour to spare, the group breathed a collective sigh of relief. With smiles and excitement about reaching the hotel and dinner, the group made its way down the Caloosahatchee River. Passing through Ft. Myers and open water, the group traveled through some chop on the way to Cape Coral, FL.
The day wasn’t without casualties as a rider sucked up a strap and needed to be towed and another suffered an intermediate shaft failure, leading to nearly sinking before being rescued and towed to a boat ramp then drained. With help from local jet skiers, arrangements were made and the ski was trailered until a local mechanic could look at it the following morning. Finally calling it a long, long day, the group arrived at Casa Loma Hotel.
Still down one ski, the group utilized the boat lift with some members stopping by and others gathered around offering tools, encouragement, holding flashlights and forgoing dinner until the necessary repairs were made. With a one for all and all for one attitude, the bonds of group riding on such a trip showed through. Pulling off the lift, another rider, Avery, noticed his ski was sinking while tied at the dock. With some quick thinking, fellow rider Brian Dill got him on the lift, drained the ski and pumped the water out of the engine. With repairs running past midnight finally engines rumbling back to life, the skis were finally ready for the ride back.
With the 6am alarm signifying the start of Day 2, it was a bunch of achy, tired riders that ate breakfast and readied themselves for the nearly 150 mile return trip ahead of them. The Sunday morning launch came earlier than some riders had hoped. After a few prayers for the repaired skis, the group was off. Although being a return trip, the group vibe was different as all the riders shared a sense of accomplishment from the day before. With ride leaders, Brandon Ford, Brian Dill, Steve Chown, Dana Callan and Tina Johnson, the group was off and on to the first fuel stop at Ft. Myers Yacht Basin and the other half at Calusa Jacks Marina to save time.
When we told the fuel attendant the final destination, he replied, “Stuart? Stuart, Florida?” With laughs, full tanks, and as many snacks as could fit, the group made their way to the WP Franklin Lock. At this point, the various lock operators had advance warning of the Sea-Doo crew, jet ski guys, jet ski club or “all those guys on jet skis” that were coming!
We made our way through the 8-foot lift of WP Franklin Lock and back up the Caloosahatchee River and onto the Ortona Lock. Some lock locals were telling others, who weren’t there the previous day about this group of crazy guys and gals riding from Stuart to Ft. Myers and back which was then usually followed by a few “no way”s and several snapshots to commemorate.
From the Ortona Lock back up to the Moore Haven Lock we reached speeds in the 70’s as many had thrown caution to the wind and were enjoying the blue skis and smooth waters. Many boaters were slowing down, some waving at the riders which made for quite an experience where jet skiers were given the right of way. Now we were talking! Smiles galore, we passed through the Moore Haven Lock and on to the second fuel stop of the day at Roland and Martin’s Marina. Being behind several million dollar yachts, riders made great use of time grabbing a hot lunch, refreshments, and chit chatting while listening to the live lunch band. An amazed yacht owner after listening to the story and aided by some hush money from
Steve Chown, allowed us to skip in line and fuel up before crossing Lake Okeechobee on the open water route. With the saying, “We will try anything once, maybe twice” fueling the riders, that open water route fell soundly under the once only clause. Some weatherman should have lost his job that day as a light chop turned in to the occasional 2-3 footers. The radio channel was ablaze with boat captains chatting about those crazy jet skiers crossing Lake O.
Gas cans and racks that came loose needed to be secured, but these being seasoned riders they muscled through and regrouped at Port Mayaca Lock to check and make sure everything was still there. Hats go off to Michael Rodney on the 2-stroke Sea-Doo RX, who rode most of the ride to the front of the group proving that a well maintained 2-stroke with a capable rider was still more than adequate to handle the almost 300 mile trip. The lock operator waved us through and it was a mad dash to the final lock of the day.
Bypassing the 3rd fuel stop at Indiantown and carrying auxiliary fuel if need be, the riders rode hard to St. Lucie Lock in record time. We ended up with a long wait and a few boaters caught up and started sharing stories from their view points and congratulating the group for a job well done and the nerve to cross Lake Okeechobee. We entered the lock with less than an hour to spare. A few more pics and with thoughts of the St. Lucie River separating us from the ramp, we put the St. Lucie Lock quickly in the rear view. It was a final dash up the St. Lucie River past Palm City with a little of everyone in lead. Special care was given to observing the wake zones and to fellow boaters with the Sunday traffic.
With Sandsprit Park coming in view and the nearly 300 miles coming to a close, the riders shared a moment enjoying what they had accomplished as a group. After logging about 300 miles of travel in 2 days, using 60 gallons of fuel, riding 14 hours in the saddle, crossing Lake Okeechobee the group was finally in. What started out as an idea came through with 21 die-hards with one being only 9 years old!
Thanks goes to Steve Chown of Central Florida Jet Riders and Lee Micheau of Jacksonville Jet Riders for the many hours of planning over the months, calculating various fueling scenarios, phone calls, a pre-ride group conference call and hotel hunting for reservations. Michelle Chown for sacrificing her riding and leaving her ski at home to take pics of the trip. Brian Dill for making a comprehensive supplies list and ride leaders Brandon Ford, Dana Callan, and Tina Johnson for keeping an eye on the front and back of the group with the organizers.