Parents of lost boys push for EPIRB bill

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Hoping to spare others their anguish, the parents of 14-year-old Austin Blu Stephanos, who was lost at sea with a friend on a fishing trip this past summer, are working with Florida lawmakers on a bill that would give a 25 percent discount on a boat’s registration fee if the owner has a properly registered 406 MHz EPIRB.

Perry Cohen and Austin Blu Stephanos were lost at sea during a fishing trip in July.

“Right now our goal is getting the bill passed,” Austin’s mother, Carly Black, of Jupiter, Florida, said during an appearance at beacon maker ACR Electronics’ booth at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in November.

But that’s just the beginning of what they hope to achieve through their AustinBlu Foundation (austinblufoundation.org), established to honor Austin’s memory and to raise awareness of boating safety, promote boater education and make the tools and technology that can prevent tragedies available to the public. The first step: Encourage boaters to carry EPIRBs so the Coast Guard can quickly locate a boat in distress and lead rescuers to it.

“We want to help parents — help anyone, really — not have to go through what we’ve had to go through,” Black says.

Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, was in Tallahassee, Florida, during the boat show to meet with state Sen. Joe Negron and Rep. MaryLynn Magar to write a bill for the legislature’s spring session that would give boaters the registration discount. Florida registration fees range from $10.25 for a vessel less than 12 feet to $194.50 for one that’s 110 feet or larger. The state requires all motorized vessels to be registered.

“We also are working with ACR to educate people about beacons,” Black says. ACR was donating $10 to the foundation through year’s end for every new EPIRB and PLB rebate its customers redeem.

The foundation also will be raising awareness of life jacket use and eventually may seek to introduce kindergarten-through-high school boating safety education in Palm Beach County. “We’d like to do that in the future,” Black says.

Austin and Perry Cohen, who also was 14, were best of friends and often fished and dived together. They went out Jupiter Inlet on July 24 in Austin’s 19-foot SeaCraft to fish and weren’t seen again. Their boat likely capsized when a line of squalls moved through the area. Rescuers found the overturned boat two days later off Daytona Beach, but there was no sign of the boys. They weren’t carrying an EPIRB or PLB.

The Coast Guard covered 50,000 square miles over seven days before calling off its search. Black says the outpouring of support, donations and volunteer efforts from around the nation and the world to carry on the search was heartening. “I couldn’t have gotten through it without that support,” she says. “We live in a small beach town. Jupiter stopped for 10 days” while residents turned their energy to finding the boys. “I’m very proud of being a part of that town.”

Cospas-Sarsat, which oversees the international satellite-based emergency rescue system that fields alerts from EPIRBs, says that since 1982 emergency beacons have assisted in the rescue of more than 37,000 people.

“This was an awful tragedy, but we want to give back,” Black says. “We want to honor [Austin]. There’s no better way for us to do that than to educate people and get them out on the water safely.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.