When news broke over the weekend that two 14-year-old boys had gone missing off the coast of Florida in a fishing boat, many parents raised a painful, yet inevitable, question: Why were the teenagers, Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, allowed to take a 19-foot, single-engine boat onto the Atlantic Ocean without adult supervision in the first place?
Addressing that question Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show, their mothers told Savannah Guthrie that the boys were more than capable.
“Austin has been on the water since before he could walk,
Perry’s mother, Pamela Cohen, told NBC: “We live in a boating community. These children are surrounded by water from the moment that they’re born. Perry knew how to swim before he knew how to walk.”
After concentrating their search for the boys about 70 miles off the coast of Jacksonville on Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard expanded its search Tuesday to an area the size of West Virginia, reaching as far north as Savannah, Georgia, and as far south as Cape Canaveral, according to the Associated Press. The Navy has also joined the rescue effort, adding the USS Carney to the Coast Guard search team that has covered more than 28,000 square miles by air and by sea.
The two boys were reported missing from Jupiter, Fla., on Friday afternoon. They were last seen purchasing $110 worth of gas for their boat on Friday; the capsized boat was found Sunday morning off the coast of Ponce Inlet, more than 180 miles north of where the teens started their journey.
The search has continued day and night, with no sign of the boys.
The search has taken on extra urgency after the Coast Guard located the boat they had been piloting; the capsized vessel was discovered Sunday about 67 nautical miles off Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County, but there was no sign of Austin or Perry, both 14, in or around the boat.
The boys were believed to be heading in the direction of the Bahamas, but their mothers disputed that idea during their appearance Tuesday on NBC. Black said the families, who live across the street from each other, believe the boys were fishing offshore when the weather turned bad and “something went amiss.”
As the search continues, a debate over parenting and marine safety has been raging on Facebook and Twitter (and in the comments online), in which two camps have emerged: Those who believe the case of the missing boys is emblematic of reckless parenting, and those who have boating backgrounds and believe that the teenagers’ disappearance has nothing to do with their age.
“My 15 year old has been boating alone and with buddies since he was 12,” Dawn Quarles argued on Facebook. ” He is trained, certified, and has thousands of hours logged on the water. This is an accident that could have easily happened to adults. Engine trouble happens to everyone. No need to judge these parents, you don’t know them or their kids.”
Perry’s stepfather, Nick Korniloff, echoed those sentiments during an interview with CNN on Monday, when he called the two missing boys “survivors” and said the two families are “people of the water” who taught their kids “the respect of mother nature” and “the power of the sea.”
Korniloff told the AP that the boys “were more passionate about the sea than anything else. If you put two pretty girls in front of them and two fishing rods, they’d grab the fishing rods first.”
“Anybody who wants to judge and look back and ask why these boys went out there, they can do that,” Korniloff told CNN. “We know who our children are, and people who live on the water know what the water is all about and how we raise our kids.”
Cohen added that when 14-year-old boys decide to do something when nobody is watching, there’s little parents can do.
“We can’t keep them under our eye every moment of every day,” she said on CNN. “We raised them right and hopefully they will make the right decisions, and I do believe that they have the knowledge and the strength to get them through this.”
According to USA Today, Korniloff told reporters on Sunday that the boys were not allowed to take the boat offshore or to the Bahamas.
Mario Vittone, a marine safety expert who spent 22 years in the Coast Guard as a rescue swimmer and boating accident investigator, understands why.
He said teenagers can spend years on the water and still be emotionally and mentally unprepared to deal with emergency situations. Asked whether teenagers should be allowed to go boating offshore without supervision, he said parents should consider the question very carefully.
“I would rephrase the question,” he told The Post on Monday. “They should ask: Should I send a teenager who has no experience with crisis out into the largest wilderness in the world, completely surrounded on all sides by something that will kill them if they get in it?
“Then the answer becomes obvious: No.”
Vittone, who grew up in Florida and spent his teenage years boating along the state’s Intracoastal Waterway, like Perry and Stephanos, said everything changes when people move offshore.
“The whole Florida coast is full of kids boating on the Intracoastal Waterway and if they get in trouble there’ll be six other boaters passing by in a minute,” he said. “But offshore, you’re really alone out there. There’s no safety anymore, and it’s up to you, and communication is up to you.”
Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney told The Post that the agency doesn’t have age recommendations for boaters, but encourages all boaters to take a boating safety course, which the boys completed.
Their families reported there were life jackets on their boat, but Barney noted that Coast Guard and Navy rescuers don’t believe the boat was equipped with a radio. The Coast Guard, Barney said, never received a distress call from the vessel.
Complicating matters, he said, was a series of powerful thunderstorms up and down the coast Friday.
“It’s a warning call for everyone else unfortunately for what could happen to you,
Derrick Fries, a marine expert and author of “Start Sailing Right,” told The Post that he won’t allow his own children to navigate a boat until they have a driver’s license. Even then, Fries said, the kids remain under strict supervision.
Over time, he said a parent’s goal should be to increase their child’s problem-solving skills on the water.
“You need to know what to do when the engine stops,” he said, noting that it’s not uncommon for inexperienced boaters to make the mistake of attempting to swim to shore during an emergency. “What are your alternatives. and how do you keep the boat in the water when there are waves?”
“There is a lot of stuff that can go wrong in a hurry,” he said. “The more time you’ve spent on the water, the more you learn and become experienced at handling situations in a safe way.”
Rick Spilman, a marine expert from Florida who founded the popular sailing forum known as the Old Salt Blog, told The Post that he saw himself in the two missing teens. He was 15 when he got his first boat and didn’t hesitate to journey far off the Gulf Coast for fun, even during bad weather. Thinking back on his adventures, to an age when he considered himself invincible, makes Spilman shudder decades later.
Spilman said the question of whether to let teenagers take a boat out on their own is a tough call for parents, he said.
Ideally, parents might limit younger boaters to an inlet or waterway where they could see land on both sides, a place where they can flag down other boats during an emergency. However, he noted, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which a pair of teenagers decide to push past their parents’ boundaries, turning an ordinary outing into a life-threatening situation.
“The water is a very dangerous place that can seem very safe,” he said. “You can see the shore, it’s beautiful, you can get caught up in the color of the water and the dolphins and the birds, and you feel so much a part of all of it. If you get caught up in the wonder, you forget this place can also kill you.”
On Monday, Perry Cohen’s mother, Pamela, said she was still optimistic that her son and his friend would be rescued.
“None of us are giving up hope they’re going to find those boys,” Cohen she told CNN. “Obviously, it’s a terrifying experience to be living through.”
She added: “I don’t know what happened; none of us know what happened. If we did, we’d have them in our arms right now.”
This post, originally published on July 27, has been updated.