"Took a right and couldn't get the boat turned around," Scott Schreck, 44, told reporters after he and his family were brought back to dry land. "This is the first time I've been out here, so obviously I'm a novice on this body of water. Not the thing to do."
The family was spotted by a helicopter and eventually rode back to land on the airboat with rescuers.
"We weren't able to see them, we were only able to hear them," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino said. "They are in good condition."
Officials abandoned a plan to hoist the family into a helicopter because of bad weather.
In addition to Scott Schreck, the family includes his 42-year-old wife, Carrie, and three young boys, who were on spring break from Seville, Ohio. They launched the airboat, borrowed from a friend, Thursday morning in extreme western Miami-Dade County but did not return by nightfall.
Law enforcement, fire rescue and wildlife agencies launched a massive search, using helicopters, airplanes and at least six airboats. The area covered some 1,000 square miles in three South Florida counties north of Everglades National Park. It is covered in tall, sharp-edged sawgrass and dark cypress tree stands that limit visibility.
It's also home to alligators, Florida panthers, bears, mosquitos, snakes, turtles, a vast array of birds and fish. Finding anyone lost in such conditions is a challenge, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Arnold Piedrahita Jr. The boat was painted in camouflage, making it even harder to find.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said.
Although wet and cold, the family appeared to be in good health even after spending the night in the wilderness, which was swept by strong thunderstorms Thursday and more rain Friday. They were checked out by paramedics on shore as a precaution.
Before they got lost, Schreck said they fished for bass and took photos of alligators. After the boat got stuck, Schreck said he built a makeshift lean-to to provide shelter from rain, fired off a flare in the night and had plenty of food and water on hand. The boys slept, he said, but he and his wife did not.
They began getting worried about their safety but then heard an airboat going back and forth in an obvious search pattern Friday, he said.
Pino said Schreck was a "savvy outdoorsman" who did the right thing by making as much noise as possible.
"If you get into that dense vegetation with an airboat, it's almost next to impossible to get out," he said.
Schreck is a golf pro who oversees three courses in northeast Ohio.
"I'm sure he would do it with a cool, calm manner and think of the best possible way to get out of the situation or to survive in a situation until help comes," said Dominic Antenucci, executive director of the Northern Ohio section of the PGA.
Mike Cavey, president of Granite Golf Properties which operates the courses, said Schreck is an experienced outdoorsman and fisherman who hunts ducks in northern Ohio marshes from an airboat.
"So it's not like a rookie going into the middle of the Everglades and doesn't know what he's doing," Cavey said.