1. Florida Politics

Tragedy spurs effort to adopt emergency locator devices for boats

TALLAHASSEE — Blu Stephanos whose 14-year-old son, Austin, was lost at sea July 24 after sailing from the Jupiter Inlet still has "no closure" on the disappearance of his child. But he came to Tallahassee Wednesday to try to find hope.

Stephanos has started the Austin Blu Foundation to channel the loss of his son, and that of Austin's friend Perry Cohen, into awareness for others. He is pursuing legislation to encourage boaters across the state to purchase satellite tracking devices for themselves and their boats that can be traced from anywhere in the world.

"I'm not going to know what happened to my son. Never," Stephanos said after a press conference outside the doors of the state Senate. "How do you deal with that? I've got to do something."

Buoyed by the heartbreaking story of the two Tequesta boys, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. Mary Lynn Magar, R-Tequesta, have filed legislation that would create an annual discount on boat licenses for Floridians who purchase and register locator devices that can transmit a boat's location so it can be identified by satellite in an emergency.

"We think we've found a way to do it where we're incentivizing boaters rather than making something mandatory," said Negron at a press conference announcing the legislation.

Stephanos and Cohen went missing July 24 and a weeklong search by the Coast Guard ensued. After federal authorities called off the search, private parties continued searching the waters and coastlines of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Their 19-foot SeaCraft boat was found two days later off the coast of Ponce Inlet near Daytona Beach, 69 miles north of where they were last seen.

Magar described how the boys went out on "just a gorgeous day" to do "what every 14-year-old wants to do — enjoy a summer day, sunshine, catch some fish and talk about life."

The ocean that was "flat as glass" when they embarked, but became dangerous as a sudden, violent storm erupted, she said. "Hours led to days, days led to weeks and we kept searching for the boys."

"We know that if a person has a locator device on their person or a boat as a locator device on the boat, then it dramatically improves safety and increases the likelihood that a boater in distress will be found alive,'' Negron said. "I think ultimately this will save money for Florida because these rescue operations are extraordinarily expensive. And obviously we can't put a value on human life."

The cost of the locator devices ranges from $200 to $700, and the modest annual savings for boaters would range from $5.25 to $48.60, depending on the size of the boat.

The device, known as 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) comes in two sizes: one intended to be attached an individual is the size of a flip phone; the one that is attached to the boat is a canister he size of a tube of tennis balls. Both activate when submerged in water or when activated by a person activating.

Once activated, it sends a signal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which alerts the Coast Guard or other rescue personnel and "they can pinpoint that boat within feet,'' Magar said. "This bill attempts to bring attention to boating safety and encourage boat owners to be prepared before they set out."

The annual license for boats between 16 and 26 feet in length costs $28.75. The savings for boats that size under the bill would be $8.75. There are 850,000 registered vessels in Florida, Magar said, and half of them are under 19 feet. The annual cost to the state of providing the discount is estimated at $5 million.

Last year, Florida legislators approved a $5.5 million tax break to boaters who spent more than $1 million on boat repairs. Lawmakers capped the sales tax on boat repairs at $60,000 in an effort to help marinas and boatyards.

Stephanos said he hopes to his son's foundation to spread the word about encouraging people to consider purchasing the tracking devices.

"I always wanted to step up and say thank you and give back," he said. "It's a blessing and a curse you know. It's very difficult."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.