In the last few months, I have been trying to research and understand the rules governing boating speeds in Okeechobee County. I plan to share my findings with interested citizens as most people, like me, have been left in the dark the last few years.
In my first letter, I addressed the requirements for boater education, possession of operator photo ID, and proof of passing a course in boating safety for all operators born after Jan. 1, 1988.
In the next letter, I researched and addressed the current Okeechobee laws regarding the Slow/No Wake operation required in all County waters. Unfortunately, this is a very controversial topic. These laws are confusing to say the least and are sometimes misrepresented by our current Waterway Markers.
In Okeechobee County, the authority for writing and publishing the laws rests with the county commissioners. The permitting, placing and maintenance of appropriate markers to accomplish their plan is assigned to the Parks and Recreation Department. All of which must be permitted and approved by the FWC. The enforcement of the regulations is also left to the FWC, with “as-available” assistance from local law enforcement. As I found out, the local FWC office has the trucks and boats to accomplish this duty, but no manpower due to budget and covid restrictions. The sheriff’s deptartment also has significant budget and manpower restrictions. Therefore, for the last few years, it has been left to the citizens to police themselves.
I think it’s time we let the public know what the laws say and what they mean and what the markers say and mean. Then we can undertake the task of correctly implementing the intent of the commissioners. This will require new or modified laws and markers as both are not currently correct and are sometimes in conflict with each other. I’ve already stated what the laws currently say; now, I’d like to talk about the markers. As of Dec. 26, 2019, the County Recreation Department has 22 speed-control markers in place to control all county waterways. Twenty of these are permitted to say “Idle Speed No Wake” or “Slow Speed Minimum Wake” which mean pretty much the same. Two allow us to “Resume Normal Safe Operation”, and of course, this conflicts with the county ordinance against any speeding. In fact, one of these appears to direct boats heading west from the FWC office at Taylor Creek to go slow while those going east from the Lock Seven Bridge are told to resume safe speed on the same stretch of canal. This should make for interesting court cases once some sue-happy citizens get started. Trust me, accidents will happen, because our waterways are overcrowded, our boaters are in the dark, and there is no enforcement to help educate our people and help prevent accidents, which will occur. In fact, they already have but it’s been handled quietly, out of court, so far. Four more “Danger” markers were permitted in the Rim Ditch at the new O.U.A. Water Intake just west of the Lock-7 public pier. That looks good but the Slow No Wake buoy at the junction of the Lock Seven Launch Ramp canal and the Rim Ditch has mysteriously disappeared. This is a blind corner from the west and north. Bass fishermen now fly by there as others are trying to get out, even in the dark.
Now I’d like to discuss the meanings of these markers. The “Resume Normal Safe Operation” markers are pretty clear except they appear to be in conflict with County Ordinance 2017-0007. The Idle Speed and No Wake definitions are not so obvious and seem to cause the most confusion. Most of us know that it means to slow down to a speed which causes minimal wake (typically 5 to 6 mph) as we approach and pass the marker. The real question is “What am I supposed to do AFTER I pass it? How far do I have to continue at a slow speed?” In my observation, to some operators here, it seems to mean about one foot before flooring it again. I have been unable to find a written legal definition in any county, state, or FWC rules. The best I’ve been able to find, and the one that I believe makes the most sense, is that “We should proceed the same way we do after passing a Slow Speed sign on a roadway; we should continue at a slow speed until we reach another sign signaling a Resume Speed or a new speed limit sign.” I’ve discussed this with potential enforcement officers, the FWC, the Sheriff, our Recreation Department and many local long time boaters. Most seem to agree with my conclusions, but this doesn’t seem to be the consensus with the speeders. I understand that many people are just trying to enjoy themselves and I don’t want to rain on their parade, but something needs to change before it’s too late. The speeding has been getting worse and undoubtedly will continue to erode our seawalls and damage our boats and docks. I, personally, have had to spend a lot of money to repair my seawall this year and have had to rebuild my dock twice so far. I have also been in a few dangerous situations with inconsiderate boaters operating at excessive speed in our waterways, under bridges, around docks used by the public and around blind Corners, especially in our residential canals.
I have been in contact with the FWC based in Lake Worth and Tallahassee and the local sheriff’s department about restarting some sort of education/enforcement. In my next opinion/speak out, I plan to offer suggestions to hopefully address some of these issues. In the meantime, I welcome reader comments, pro or con, and appreciate any support you can give me to try to make our waters safer and protect our property without taking away all the fun.