'Austin and Perry, We're Coming for You': Rescuers Hopeful They'll Find 14-Year-Old Boys Who Went Missing on Florida Fishing Trip
Captain Alfredo Cortez was on his way from New York to Bimini in a corporate-owned yacht on Sunday evening when he got the message from the Coast Guard: Two 14-year-old boys had gone missing while on a fishing trip in the area through which he was now traveling.
He didn’t think: Cortez slowed down the 88-foot boat and began traveling in a zigzag pattern, hoping to cover as much of the ocean as possible.
“We are headed south to join a party for leisure cruising, but we’re slowing down and trying to cover as much area as possible,” he tells PEOPLE. “There are a lot of people praying and right now, it’s our duty to be out here searching for these boys.”
But that’s a lot of water. “We are talking about an area the size of the state of Maine – 33,000 square miles,” he says. “It’s unbelievably big. The vastness of the ocean is just unbelievable, but we are trying to do the best we can.”
Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14, were last seen buying fuel for their boat near Jupiter, Florida, on Friday. That boat was found capsized on Sunday, about 67 miles off the coast of the Ponce de Leon Inlet. But the teens were nowhere in sight.
Hundreds have rallied for the boys, holding prayer vigils and taking out their own boats to search. But the stormy waters have hampered the efforts.
“It’s still pretty choppy out there now,” Jimmy Hill, a boat captain who’s been helping search for the teens, says, adding that the fact that the boys were so far offshore complicates matters as well. “It’s 70-plus miles to the edge of the Gulf Stream and they’re clearly somewhere in the Gulf Stream, based on where the boat was found That’s right at the edge of the normal limits for recreational assets to safely go unless you have a boat built specifically for that.”
He continues: “[The rough waters] make the distance even worse because searchers can’t cover the same distance that you could on a flat day. It’s frustrating, because there are a lot of people who would like to go out and actively search.”
Some have criticized the boys’ families for allowing their sons to go out on the water alone. But it’s perfectly legal, says Dr. Jim Coleman, President of the Jupiter Christian School, where Austin is one of around 600 students.
“There are a lot of kids here in South Florida who are out on the water at an early age,” he says. “I’ve been here in South Florida for four years. I came from the Midwest, where young guys might hang out and play video games. Kids here hit the water and a lot of young guys are out fishing every weekend. That’s very much a part of the culture here.”
Added Carly Black, Austin’s mom, in an interview with television station WPBF: “This isn’t something that he’s new at. I think they feel better on the boat than they do on land.”
But now that’s been nearly four days since the boys were last seen, many are starting to give up hope that they’ll be found alive. However, Hill says the warm waters in the Gulf Stream significantly “extend their survivability.” Even more promising? Several items missing from the boat – a Yeti cooler, an engine cover and a number of life jackets – could be used as flotation devices.
“People have in the past, and even locally, survived for days at sea in the type of cooler they had,” Hills says. “So there is more than a just a little hope that the boys retrieved the cooler and several life jackets. That will be a critical issue. The fact that only one life jacket was found on the boat offers some hope that the other life jackets and the cooler are with them.”
Chris Caplan, who’s been searching for the boys with a friend’s plane after raising funds for fuel on a GoFundMe page, says he has “extremely high hopes” that they’ll be found.
“We live on the water and know how the currents and winds and storms work,” he says. “With the water temperatures being a little warmer than typical, a person could survive for four or five days, possibly longer if they hang on to anything that floats. These boys are everyday boaters. They know what to do to survive.”
For now, Caplan has a message for the teens: “Austin and Perry, we’re coming to get you. Stay strong, fight fight fight!”
UPDATE: U.S. Coast Guard Spokesman Petty Officer Mark Barney tells PEOPLE: “The total area searched in the last 72 hours covers 28,127 square nautical miles. Today, we are searching the area stretching from Daytona Beach to Savannah, about 90 miles off the coast.”
• Reporting by DEVAN LESLEY
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