Near-Tragedy on Lake Okeechobee Brings Home Danger of Lowered Lake

By NANCY SMITH

Bill Matchekowsky and the lake rescue boat

Bill Matchekowsky and the lake rescue boat

There are safety consequences to lowering the lake level. The folks who know Lake Okeechobee best, who work on it and fish in it, keep telling us a deliberately lowered 10.5-foot lake is an accident waiting to happen.

On Saturday night, we found out how justified those fears were when three boys visiting from South Carolina and fishing in Lake Okeechobee, ran aground about a mile from shore.

It was about 7:30 p.m. Getting dark and scary. The boys, age 15, 15 and 12, remained in the gathering dark and finally pitch black for more than three hours, calling for help, shining a single, barely visible light toward land. Fortunately, the boys were rescued unharmed with only a damaged hull at about 11 p.m.

“We saw firsthand how the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’) aggressive push to lower the lake has already begun impacting boaters and, unfortunately, put this group of teenagers’ lives at risk,” said Ramon Iglesias, co-founder of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee. 

“This was not a crisis determined by Mother Nature,” he said. “It was an unnecessary, man-made crisis that could have been avoided.”

Ramon Iglesias

Ramon IglesiasIt was Iglesias, also general manager of Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort, who first spotted the boys’ light offshore. “The area where they were fishing would normally be much deeper this time of year,” he said, “but due to the Army Corps’ decision to bow to public pressure and make an unprecedented break from the authorized Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, the lake is significantly lower and boaters have been faced with major navigation challenges.”

What most disturbed anglers about Saturday night is, Lake Okeechobee was at 11.3 feet when the boys ran aground. Said Iglesias, “The consequences of a 10.5-foot lake would be unimaginable.”

Iglesias called Bill Matchekowsky who works on the lake rescue boat, Lake/Tow Recovery.

“These boys shouldn’t have been out there at all,” said Matchekowsky, who told Sunshine State News he averages about 50 rescues a year. “They were underage, there were no markers in those waters, they shouldn’t have been there at all. But that’s what we see now, mostly tourists from out of state who haven’t made a float plan, haven’t communicated with anybody. They’re usually running too fast. And some of them don’t even know how to use a GPS,” he said.

A leftover from the 2011 drought

A leftover from the 2011 drought

“Right now, except for tourists, the lake is very quiet. Floridians know what’s going on and they’re staying off it,” explained Matchekowsky, who has “worked the lake” for nearly three decades. “A low lake means business is bad for a lot of people.”

Iglesias said, despite the low lake level, the recent Roland Martin Marine Series tournament went ahead anyway. It drew 254 anglers (down from 330 in 2918). Iglesias and the tournament organizers knew where to direct them and how to keep them safe. Out-of-town anglers are less predictable.

“We’ve had experience with the dangers and difficulties of low water,” Matchekowsky said. “The 2011 drought put people out of business.” (See the notice above, posted in Clewiston in 2011, during a naturally occurring period of low water.)

Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith.

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News Talk Florida Staff