An ongoing conflict came to the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council in search of a solution last week. Homeowners asked for help with resolving a dispute over events involving personal watercraft near channel marker R15.
Lake residents Jan Ruehle and Dale Fell spoke with members of the safety council on Nov. 4 to share their concerns over the events held by neighbors in the cove. Due to a recent increase in COVID-19 cases locally, the meeting was held virtually on Zoom.
The personal watercraft practice events take place several times a year in the cove with 10 to 14 PWCs racing along a course marked with temporary buoys. Fell said the PWC operators travel at high speeds close to docks and swimmers in the water.
While the PWCs are navigating the course, Fell said no other boats, including those operated by residents who live in the cove, are able to come into or leave the cove. “Essentially, nobody can get by,” he said.
The most recent event was held over Labor Day weekend. Fell said the PWC operators blocked the cove and created wakes that were as large as 5 feet high.
Brothers Matthew and Connor Richuk are the event hosts. They did not attend the SML Water Safety Council meeting Nov. 4, but spoke to the Laker Weekly by phone Nov. 6.
“We are not doing anything illegal,” Matthew Richuk said.
The temporary buoys, placed in the cove to mark the course, are held in place by 5-pound weights and are not anchored to the lake floor, which would be illegal, Richuk said. The operators also keep at least 50 feet from docks, people and other boats as required by law.
Richuk said he and his brother grew up on the lake and have been riding PWCs since the 1990s. He said they both know and respect the laws when it comes to operating watercraft on the lake.
When events are held, including the one over Labor Day weekend, Richuk said they contact local law enforcement beforehand. Officers from the Department of Wildlife Resources also responded on the day of the event due to concerns from neighbors.
Sgt. James Slaughter of DWR said nothing taking place at the PWC events is illegal. The buoys are allowed, as long as they are temporary, and there are no speed limits on the lake.
While they are not illegal, Slaughter said he understands the events can be disruptive to those who live in the cove.
Slaughter said residents have expressed concern that operators have come closer than 50 feet to docks and other boats on the water and encouraged them to record the incidents since it is difficult to prove without an officer witnessing the activity.
SML Water Safety Council Chairman Pat Massa invited the residents to last week’s meeting to see if a resolution could be found. None of the council members at last week’s meeting provided any solutions, but agreed to look into the issue and discuss it further at the next meeting.
Massa said one solution being considered is finding another location where the PWC practices could take place. Members also suggested an agreed-upon place to publish where and when the events on the lake would be held.
The SML Water Safety Council is not meeting in December, so members are expected to consider the issue again in January.