Bill boosting age of watercraft users — inspired by missing Tequesta teens — looks sunk for session

Bill to boost age for operating personal watercraft looks sunk
Bill to boost age for operating personal watercraft looks sunk

An effort to increase to 16 the minimum age for operating a personal watercraft in Florida looks sunk for this session.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said Wednesday that the legislation (SB 644) was recommended to him by Broward County high school students alarmed by the disappearance last summer of two 14-year-old boaters from Tequesta, lost at sea after leaving Jupiter Inlet.

While the students initially proposed setting a first-time-ever minimum age for operating a boat, Ring said that was unlikely to gain support. But Ring said he did think he could build a case for boosting the age somebody can operate a personal watercraft.

“It’s certainly dangerous,” Ring said, of youngsters making their way through crowded South Florida canals and inlets on Jet Skis and similar craft.

“I think being just a little bit older gives you a little bit more maturity,” Ring said.

But the bill was swamped Wednesday in the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Following debate which clearly showed a majority of committee members opposing the bill, Ring postponed a vote — likely shelving the idea for this session.

“It’s an issue that probably needs more baking,” Ring conceded.

Ring had tried to soften the measure — by allowing 14-year-olds to operate a watercraft if they were accompanied by an adult. But several industry officials testified the legislation would hurt business, dull tourism, and basically amount to government interference.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who said his children grew up driving vehicles on his farm beginning at age 7 or 8, didn’t think it was government’s role to set new watercraft limits.

“That’s why we have parents,” Simpson said.

Separate legislation aimed at encouraging boaters to buy locator beacons for themselves or their craft continues to advance in the House and Senate.

The legislation (HB 427, SB 746) has been portrayed as aimed at creating a legacy for Austin Stephanos, 14, and his friend Perry Cohen, 14, lost after leaving Jupiter Inlet on July 24 in their 19-foot SeaCraft boat.

Their capsized boat was found two days later, 67 miles off Daytona Beach. A U.S. Coast Guard search for the boys ended July 31, followed by a private search that continued into early August.


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