Broken-hearted parents of missing teens busy pushing for safe boating

Blu Stephanos didn’t get to watch his son, Austin, blow out candles on his 15th birthday or open gifts on Dec. 1.

Instead, he and Austin’s 11-year-old brother, Dakoda, jumped on a boat in the Jupiter Inlet with balloons and some roses. They had a talk with the son and brother they lost to the sea.

That evening, the whole family came to the inlet and lighted the coast with lanterns.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both 14 of Tequesta, were reported missing July 24 after leaving the Jupiter Inlet in a 19-foot boat. Coast Guard crews scoured about 44,000 square nautical miles from Daytona Beach to just south of Myrtle Beach, S.C., before calling off the search July 31.

The families of the boys ended a private search Aug. 9, and Austin’s family held a memorial service in November to say goodbye.

But it hasn’t made life without him any easier, especially at the holidays.

“I’m lost. Part of me is gone,” Blu Stephanos said Wednesday.

He said it’s tough getting on a boat, but Austin enjoyed it so much, he feels he is letting him down if he doesn’t continue to go out on the water.

He tries to stay busy. He and Austin’s mom, Carly Black, have been working tirelessly to promote the AustinBlu Foundation. Through the foundation, they promote boating safety courses, awareness of emergency locator devices and legislation to give discounts to boaters on their registrations for buying such equipment.

Cohen’s family in November launched the Perry J. Cohen Foundation, which aims to provide boating safety education, scholarships to marine science students and money for other search and rescue efforts. His mother, Pamela, was not available to speak until after the holidays.

Getting on board with safety

Boating safety can be a tough sell. A Coast Guard Auxiliary group reported more students signing up for a boating safety class in Boynton Beach immediately after the boys’ disappearance. But the Palm Beach Sail & Power Squadron in Lake Park offered free registration to kids 12-19 and had no takers, Chairman Bill Eldridge said. The squadron is still offering the class for free to kids in that age range.

“I think what the parents are doing is just the right thing, and that is advocating that if you go out in the ocean, you should have a beacon if your boat gets in trouble,” Eldridge said.

Life-saving Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacons, or EPIRBs, have become much less expensive in the past few years. The Coast Guard puts the cost at $200 to $1,500.

If a boater, fisher or hiker has an emergency while out of cellphone range, the device allows him or her to send a signal via satellite. It has GPS, allowing rescuers to determine a person’s exact location in about 20 minutes.

Blu Stephanos said Austin had a beacon, but it wasn’t on the boat.

“There’s one still sitting on the seat,” Stephanos said of the device on another family boat, emotion in his voice. “I wish he would have grabbed it.”

Even now, many people don’t know about the EPIRBs or have one, he said. That’s something Blu Stephanos and Black hope to change. They have some help from Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta. The lawmakers introduced a proposal in November that would reduce annual registration fees for boaters with an EPIRB or personal locator beacon. The bills are now in subcommittees.

Having an EPIRB tremendously improves the odds of survival.

“It’s not searching, it’s rescue. It’s a big difference,” Blu Stephanos said.

ACR Electronics, a Fort Lauderdale company that designs and makes survival devices such as the beacons, has agreed to donate $10 to the AustinBlu Foundation for every EPIRB and personal locator beacon promotion redeemed. The offer is good for purchases through the end of the year.

Blu Stephanos said he toured the company’s facility this summer. It was hard to be surrounded by so many survivor stories of people who were saved by their devices, he said. ACR has been very supportive, embracing the family any way they can, he said.

Stephanos repeatedly said how grateful he is for all the support the family received from throughout the world. He never used Facebook before Austin disappeared and considered himself a private person. That all changed as he did whatever he could to find his son.

“Still to this day, the support I get on there from perfect strangers — it’s amazing,” he said, struggling to put it into words.

Just a way of life

Inspired by several South Florida boating tragedies this past summer, including that of Stephanos and Cohen, Broward County State Sen. Jeremy Ring proposed a bill that would raise the minimum age to operate personal watercraft such as a jet ski from 14 to 16. Florida sets no age requirement for boaters.

Blu Stephanos, Austin’s aunt Margaux Stephanos and Eldridge all agree imposing age limits for boaters isn’t the answer.

“At 14 years old, I was doing exactly what Austin was doing, going out on the ocean, fishing,” said Margaux Stephanos, who was born in Palm Beach County. “That’s how I spent my summers.”

Anywhere kids grow up near water, Eldridge said, it’s nice to go out in the backyard and jump in the boat. He compared it to riding a bike, which can be equally dangerous.

“This is a very unfortunate situation, but you can’t change the livelihood of kids growing up any more than you can tell them not to ride a bicycle,” Eldridge said.

Still, the holidays will be tough for the family this year.

“We’re a strong family,” Margaux Stephanos said. “We stick together, and use each other as support.”

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