Lance Duffett knew his way around water.
As a kid growing up in Silver Lake, Wis., Duffett spent every day of the summer at a lake near his family home skiing and swimming. At age 17, Duffett won a world amateur championship in wakeskating, a sport that combines aspects of surfing and skateboarding.
But all of Duffett’s experience in the water didn’t prepare the 23-year-old man for what he encountered Thursday afternoon while wakeskating in a spillway in an unincorporated area of the county between North Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens.
Duffett, from Coconut Creek, drowned when a sudden rush of water caught him unexpectedly and pinned him below the waterline at the bottom of the dam. Desperate efforts by friends and firefighters to save Duffett were unsuccessful. It took dive teams more than 25 minutes to recover Duffett’s body.
It was the second time in recent months that a person drowned at the location. In June, 13-year-old Jefferson Rossen died after he lost his grip while climbing a fence around the spillway structure and fell into the water.
On Friday, area residents wondered what else must happen before steps are taken to keep people out of the area. There are no signs prohibiting swimming or fishing near the spillway, which includes a mechanical gate that regulates the overflow of water.
“The people that live around here know the spillway is not a swimming area and it’s not a play area,” said Kathleen Yorke, whose house abuts the canal where Duffett drowned. “But the people that come from the outside this community don’t realize how dangerous it is out there. Whether it’s signs or barriers, it needs to be emphasized this is not water you want to get into.”
According to Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue spokesman Keith Bryer, Duffett likely didn’t know what was happening until it was too late.
Bryer said Duffett was surfing along the water above the gate when it opened unexpectedly, creating a powerful suction effect. Duffett was wedge horizontally into a 10-inch gap below the gate and was unable to escape.
“It takes an army to free somebody when the water pressure is that great,” Bryer said.
Two firefighters attempting to rescue Duffett nearly drowned when the gate, triggered remotely, opened further. That created a rip-current effect on the downstream side of the gate that trapped the firefighters for several minutes before they were pulled out by fellow first responders. The firefighters were hospitalized briefly and released.
“This is not a recreational facility,” Bryer said. “People shouldn’t be anywhere near this water. The bottom line is if you fall in and the gate is up, you’re going to drown.”
Asked about the lack of fencing or signs warning of the potential danger, South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith declined comment, citing the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office ongoing investigation.
On Friday, Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach County fire rescue crews returned to the scene where Duffett drowned and met with officials from the South Florida Water Management District to go over protocols for emergencies near spillways.
“We want to have better communication with them about how the gates open just to make sure our personnel are safe,” Bryer said.
Duffett’s family was traveling to South Florida from Wisconsin on Friday night. His older sister, Bristel, said her brother had moved to Florida three years ago and was attending the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in the hopes of becoming a graphic artist.
Rare was the day, Bristel Duffett said, that her brother wasn’t wakeskating.
“It was his life,” Bristel Duffett said. “He was very serious about it. It was his one passion. He loved it more than anything else.”
Rescuers speak about the drowning at mypalmbeachpost.com