Powering toward the North Atlantic, a Norwegian transport vessel last month came across a tiny capsized boat bobbing off the coast of Bermuda.
What follows is a tale of miracles, two fathers fostering a bond and how the ocean slowly reveals its secrets.
The boat was the 19-foot SeaCraft Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos took through the Jupiter Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean on July 24. The boys never returned.
The crew of the Edda Fjord, seeking to keep the craft out of shipping lanes, hoisted it aboard their 322-foot vessel. The boat was identified from a serial number on the engine. Austin’s iPhone, two fishing rods and two small tackle boxes were recovered, according to U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss.
“It’s a miracle that a tiny boat like that could be found in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s like that boat was meant to be found,” Doss said.
The SeaCraft now is packed in a shipping container and is expected to arrive May 16 at Port Everglades. The families have been given custody of the items on the boat. It is up to the families to decide whether and how to retrieve clues to the disappearance from what the boys left behind, a statement from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.
Blu Stephanos, father of Austin, wrote to Havard Melvaer, the captain of the Norwegian vessel, to thank him and his crew.
In a return letter, the captain told Stephanos his crew was deeply touched when they learned the story behind the boat.
Stephanos released the following statement to The Palm Beach Post:
“Capt. Melvaer returned a heartfelt reply explaining that, as a father of three boys, the story of Austin and Perry had affected him deeply.
“He wrote about growing up in Norway and how the support and freedom he received from his parents gave him the opportunity to explore, to try and fail, and how it made him the person he is today.
“He went on to say that, since recovering the boat, his entire crew had thought a lot about the boys and said, ‘I think they will follow us in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives.’
“I can say without hesitation that our deep appreciation for the compassionate efforts of Capt. Melvaer and the crew of the Edda Fjord will be something that remains in our hearts as well.”
Austin and Perry’s parents are hopeful about the discovery.
“This is an open missing persons case, and we hope that FWC reopens their investigation and utilizes the expert resources of other government agencies as well as the private sector if necessary to extrapolate the data from the recovered iPhone,” Perry’s parents Pam Cohen and Nick Korniloff said in a statement Saturday.
FWC Public Information Officer Rob Klepper said he did not have any information Saturday on where the craft will be stored or whether his agency will conduct an investigation on the craft.
The SeaCraft once was in possession of the Coast Guard but it slipped away. The capsized boat was initially found 67 miles off the coast of Daytona Beach two days after the boys disappeared. The Coast Guard attached a data marker buoy to the craft, which was in water too deep to use an anchor.
When the Coast Guard returned to the location after searching for the boys, the craft was gone, Doss said.
“The marker buoy did not work properly,” he said.
Discovering the craft is the latest development in the story that has captured the imagination of boaters and non-boaters alike.
An air, land and sea search for the missing boys stretched from Daytona Beach to South Carolina. Fundraisers and web pages garnered support.
The Coast Guard called off its search about a week after the boys disappeared. The families searched until Aug. 9.
The loss rippled across the community.
A memorial for the boys of sea shells and candles still stands at the foot of the jetty at the Jupiter Inlet.The Coast Guard and a foundation set up by Blu Stephanos are teaching boating safety classes targeted to teens.
A boating safety bill supported by the two families was signed into law in March by Gov. Rick Scott. The bill offers boaters a state vessel registration discount for buying emergency locator devices.
Publication of the story about finding the craft on The Palm Beach Post’s website Saturday morning drew a worldwide response on social media.
Said one post: “So sad. I never go by the river or the ocean without thinking of them and praying for them and their family. I so hope this will provide some answers.”
Finding the craft is both good and bad news, said Jimmy Burg, owner of the Square Grouper in Jupiter, home of fundraisers for the search.
“On the one hand, finding the boat offers relief for the families. On the other, it opens up all those old wounds again. The whole community has had their heart ripped out over this. We all feel so bad for the families,” said Burg.
While finding the craft in the ocean may be a miracle, it is not the one everyone was seeking.
Palm Beach Post staff writers Matt Morgan and Alexandra Seltzer contributed to this story.