Bill inspired by missing Tequesta teens wins final approval from state lawmakers

A memorial last summer to missing Tequesta teens
A memorial last summer to missing Tequesta teens

The memory of two Tequesta teenagers missing since they sailed out of Jupiter Inlet last summer will live on in legislation approved Wednesday by the Florida Senate and sent to Gov. Rick Scott.

The measure (CS/HB 427) is aimed at encouraging boaters to buy an emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacon for their watercraft. Supporters portray the legislation as a legacy for the 14-year-old friends, Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, missing since last July.

Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who represent the youngsters’ home town, sponsored the legislation. It cleared the Senate on a 39-0 vote and now goes to Scott, who is expected to sign the bill into law.

Magar earlier told the House the measure will “save lives, heartbreak and anguish.”

 

Bill inspired by missing Tequesta teens clears Florida House


A memorial last summer to missing Tequesta teens
A memorial last summer to missing Tequesta teens

Legislation inspired by the tragic loss at sea of two Tequesta teenagers last summer cleared the Florida House Wednesday on a 115-0 vote.

The measure by Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, is aimed at encouraging boaters to buy an emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacon for their watercraft.

“It will save lives, hearbreak and anguish,” Magar told the House.

Speaking on the floor, she also thanked the missing teenagers whose lives prompted the effort to improve boater safety. A similar bill by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is awaiting final action in the Florida Senate.

The measures (HB 427, SB 746) have been portrayed as a legacy for Austin Stephanos, 14, and his friend Perry Cohen, 14. The two teenagers were 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.

The tale of the lost boys riveted media attention for weeks. But the focus slowly faded – except for the families and their friends most affected.

Blu Stephanos, Austin’s father, came to Tallahassee last November to help Magar and Negron unveil the legislation. At the time, Stephanos said, “I want to protect everyone from having to go through what I’m going through.”

The legislation would give a discount on state vessel registration fees to boaters who register an EPIRB or personal locator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The fees vary by boat size, as would the discounts.

The House and Senate bills differ slightly on determining the discount, but it’s only a few dollars either way. For boats between 16 feet and 26 feet, the most common in Florida, the savings would cut the annual base fee from $28.75 to $24.83, while Negron’s would reduce it to $20.40.

EPIRBs can cost several hundred dollars, while personal locator beacons can be bought for about $250.

While the proposed discount is modest, supporters of the bills say they expect the state’s Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles to promote the fee savings – bringing more attention to the importance of locator devices and encouraging boaters to buy them.

What you need to know about proposed law inspired by missing Tequesta teens

Candles burn as night falls at the Jupiter Inlet, where Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen took their small boat out on July 24, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Candles burn as night falls at the Jupiter Inlet, where Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen took their small boat out on July 24, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

A proposed law could help improve boater safety, and it’s inspired by two missing boys who were lost at sea this summer.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen were 14 when they went missing in July after leaving the Jupiter Inlet on a 19-foot boat.

Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, is backing a proposed law that could help prevent something like what happened to his son from happening to someone else.

Here’s what you need to know about the proposed law:

What would it do? The bills (SB 746, HB 427) would reduce boat registration fees by about 25 percent for boaters who purchase and register either an emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB) or a personal locator beacon. For boats between 16 feet and 26 feet, the most common in Florida, the savings would cut the annual state fee from $33.50 to $28.75, the Palm Beach Post has reported.

Who is behind the bills? Two Palm Beach County legislators have proposed the bills: state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes a piece of northern Palm Beach County; and state Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta.

State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, stands with Blu Stephanos at a Dec. 15, 2015, Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (staff photo/Eliot Kleinberg)
State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, stands with Blu Stephanos at a Dec. 15, 2015, Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (staff photo/Eliot Kleinberg)

Where do the bills stand now? Both bills are moving through the Legislature’s pre-session committee process. Florida’s legislative session begins in January, which is when the bills will be debated and possibly passed.

What happens next? If both Florida’s House and Senate approve the bills, and Gov. Rick Scott signs off, the law would go into effect July 1, 2016.

Who else is supporting the bills? The Palm Beach County Commission voted unanimously this week to give its support to the proposed law.

How would it be promoted? Negron and Magar have said the state’s Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles would run a promotional campaign. Blu Stephanos said the AustinBlu Foundation, started in memory of his son, would help promote the law as well.

These devices can be pricey. Why not offer a state rebate or other incentive to buy them? Negron and Magar say the registration-fee incentive could mean a reduction in up to $5 million coming to the state, where rebates could be far costlier. They expect people will be more interested in this incentive program. “People are very motivated when … they can get a discount on something,” Negron told the Palm Beach Post in November.

Isn’t there another boater safety bill proposed as well? Yes. That bill would raise the age limit for operating a personal watercraft, and possibly serve as a first step toward creating a minimum boating age. However, the families of both Austin and Perry said they do not agree with the bill. “I’ve spent enough nights beating myself up about what I could’ve done and what I should’ve done,” Blu Stephanos told The Palm Beach Post in November. “My son was 14 years old and he could drive a boat better than anyone … knowledge and just having the right stuff on the boat makes all the difference in the world.”

Read more about the proposed law.

Palm Beach Post staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this report.

Father of missing Tequesta teen to promote new boating legislation

Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet
Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet

The father of missing Tequesta teen boater Austin Stephanos is slated to come Wednesday to the state Capitol to promote a measure aimed at enhancing boating safety.

Blu Stephanos is scheduled to be joined by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to discuss a legislative proposal that would reduce annual registration fees for boaters who purchase emergency locator devices for themselves or their vessels.

Blu Stephanos has started a foundation called AustinBlu to increase boater safety through education and technology, including requiring emergency beacons on boats.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both 14, sailed out of Jupiter Inlet on July 24. Their capsized boat was found days later near Daytona Beach.

“While government cannot prevent these horrific incidents, we can and should do more to encourage boaters to have solid safety precautions in place as they enjoy time on Florida’s coast and waterways,” Negron said.

The tragedy involving the Tequesta teenagers also helped inspire separate legislation (SB 644) that would raise the age limit for operating personal watercraft — possibly as a first step toward creating a minimum boating age.

Florida law sets no age requirement for boaters. State law mandates only that anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988 piloting a vessel of more than 10 horsepower complete an approved safety boating course.

A person must be at least 14 to operate a personal watercraft, such as a Jet Ski, in Florida. But the bill by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, would raise that limit to age 16, although his staff said he wants the measure to spark discussion of setting the same age standard for all boaters.

Just last week, another member of the Stephanos family came out in opposition to the bill.

In a post on Facebook on Oct. 29, Margaux Stephanos, Austin’s aunt, wrote, “We the family, of Austin Stephanos 100% DO NOT AGREE or stand behind this bill being passed.” Read her post here.

Senator hopes bill will prompt talk of minimum age for boating in Florida

Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet
Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet

A Broward County senator filed legislation Monday that raises the age limit for operating personal watercraft — but that may be just a first step.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, proposed a measure (SB 644) that he said was inspired by several South Florida boating tragedies last summer –including the disappearance of two Tequesta 14-year-olds, 

Their capsized boat was found days later near Daytona Beach.

Florida law sets no age requirement for boaters. State law mandates only that anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988 piloting a vessel of more than 10 horsepower complete an approved safety boating course.

A person must be at least 14 to operate a personal watercraft, such as a jet ski, in Florida. But Ring’s bill would raise that limit to age 16, although his staff said he wants the measure to spark discussion of setting the same age standard for all boaters.