On July 24, 2015, Austin Blu Stephanos and Perry Cohen left the Jupiter Inlet for a day of fishing on Austin’s 19-foot Seacraft boat. A particularly brutal afternoon storm quickly rolled in, catching them unaware. Frantic calls to the boys went unanswered. What transpired next was an unprecedented search and rescue effort, drawing media attention around the globe focused on finding the boys. After seven days, the Coast Guard officially called off the search.
“Truth of the matter is, when faced with a tragedy, everyone else’s lives go on but your own,” says Blu Stephanos about the loss of his son, Austin. “No day is easy, but I owe it to Austin to be more loving, caring and make people smile, just as he did every day of his life. I feel I owe it to him to double up on those things.”
Austin was a lover of fishing, hunting and diving, says Carly Black, Austin’s mother. “Blu and I wanted to do something to carry on our son’s name,” she says. “Starting the AustinBlu Foundation has been so amazing to be able to carry on his name and teach people about boating, and I know he would be so proud. I know he is looking at us and saying, ‘Good job mom and dad. You are doing something awesome from something horrible.’”
AustinBlu Foundation raises awareness and promotes educational programs to improve boater safety. Its mission is to “make available to boaters of all ages the tools and technology which can help prevent near-shore and offshore boating accidents and improve the chances for survival and recovery, should such an accident occur.”
“Carly and I are pretty proud and here to help others, but not very good at asking for help,” Blu says. “But when something like this happens, you don’t have a choice, you’ll do anything. We reached out to the community, friends, social media, and the response we got back was absolutely spiritual. It was more than we could ever have expected and we are forever grateful.”
They recommend kids and adults take boating safety classes, which are available at the River Center. The foundation pays for classes for anyone older than 12 years of age. AustinBlu foundation has sponsored 18 kids going through a beginner boating class, which puts them on a boat with a Coast Guard instructor and teaches them how to safely operate a boat, what to do in an emergency and critical skills like what to do in a man-overboard situation.
Additionally, the AustinBlu Foundation recommends and advocates an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) or PLB (personal locator beacon) be standard equipment on each boat. An EPIRB is used to alert search and rescue authorities in the event of an emergency by transmitting a 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite to rescue sources.
According to Nichole Kalil with ACR Electronics, an AustinBlu Foundation sponsor, “Every boater should have an EPIRB on their boat, even if they don’t go too far off-shore because engine problems and weather issues are inevitable. The AustinBlu Foundation is the first foundation in the world to promote technology and boating.”
The Beacon Bill, not widely publicized, is something Blu worked tirelessly on with Sen. Joe Negron and Rep. MaryLynn Magar to pass. The bill gives boaters a 25-percent discount on annual registration with proof of a registered EPIRB on board.
Carly and Blu want to emphasize the importance of kids staying in communication with their parents. “That’s one thing Austin was really good at and why he was allowed to do what he was allowed to do,” Carly says. “He was always very
responsible, level-headed and wise
beyond his years.”
On May 5, AustinBlu Foundation and River Center will host the first annual AustinBlu Land and Sea Fishing Tournament. According to Jocelyn O’Neill, environmental education manager for the River Center, “We’ve been running a successful junior angler tournament for several years and have developed a partnership with the AustinBlu Foundation through the boating safety classes. This seemed like a great idea to put the two together to create a family oriented fishing tournament that would support AustinBlu and further [its] mission to get people out on the water safely.”
The tournament includes two competitions: harvest and release. During the harvest competition, anglers bring in fish to have them weighed. During the release competition, anglers will take a photograph of the fish and submit the photo online to be reviewed and identified by experts. Anglers can target a selection of species reachable both from the shoreline and offshore. Following the competition will be an awards ceremony featuring live music, food trucks, silent auction, raffles and
a kids area.
Blu says the tournament is a family affair, and while “it’s hard on Carly and [me], Dakoda (Austin’s brother) has handled it all so well.” Blu says Austin named his brother while watching his favorite cartoon, “Brother Bear,” in which the small character was named “Koda.” “He manages to find the positive in everything and is so proud to be Austin’s little brother, which he wears like a badge of honor and knows his brother is watching over him,” Blu says.
Carly puts an emphasis on giving back to the community that supported her and Blu during their darkest hour. “It’s a way to give back and do good in Austin’s name for our community and those we love. This is our home and we are so proud of it,” she says. “Everyone should choose kindness in life when they get a choice because that’s how Austin lived his life and it’s the only way to be in a world with so much hate and negativity. Just be kind and know that everyone walks some kind of walk that you know nothing about.”