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Bill Pushed by Dad of Missing Tequesta Teens Heads to Governor

Andrew Grubowski, 10, of Palm City, Fla., releases a lantern during a vigil for missing teens Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Andrew Grubowski, 10, of Palm City, Fla., releases a lantern during a vigil for missing teens Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

TALLAHASSEE — Two Tequesta teenagers lost at sea after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet this past summer inspired 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 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.

Negron later credited the Stephanos family, which supported the legislation and also has started the AustinBlu Foundation to promote boater education and safety.

"I think they have taken a terrible, terrible tragedy and tried to find some way to make something positive come out of it," he said.

The House approved the legislation 115-0 this past month. It 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. But 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.

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

Although the proposed discount is modest, sponsors said they expect the marine industry and 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.

When the measure cleared the House this past month, Magar predicted it would "save lives, heartbreak and anguish."

On Wednesday, Magar said she hopes the discounted fees will be just one part of a larger statewide push toward promoting boater safety. While there are about 860,000 boats registered in Florida, Magar said that only about 12,000 EPIRBS and 26,000 locators are being used.

"I'm hoping this will be something that people with older boats, and smaller boats, take advantage of," Magar said. "Many larger boats already have EPIRBS. But when people just go out for an afternoon on the weekend, they have to be aware that the weather can turn quickly."

Outside the House chamber, in a noise-filled rotunda crowded with lobbyists in the final scheduled week of the session, Magar grew tearful, saying the missing teenagers remain "in my heart."

"The boys have been called for another purpose," she said.

The youngsters, who had grown up on the water, left 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 national media attention for weeks. But the focus slowly faded — but not for the families and friends most affected.

Blu Stephanos, Austin's father, came to Tallahassee in November to help Magar and Negron unveil the legislation.

In a phone interview with The Palm Beach Post Wednesday afternoon, Stephanos credited Negron and Magar for shepherding the measure through the Legislature.

"I'm thrilled. I couldn't be happier. It's good that something positive could come out of the tragedy that happened to my son," Stephanos said.

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