“Absent new information, continuing the search is not practical.”

These nine heartbreaking words were issued August 9 as part of a joint press release by the families of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, the 14-year-old boaters who went missing in South Florida in late July. The families released the statement following a 16-day search, one that included some $475,000 in donations to extend the effort for nearly a week beyond the U.S. Coast Guard’s exhaustive attempt to find the boys.

Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos

A search lasted more than two weeks, but Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were never found.

Their disappearance shook the souls of all parents who, on any given day, do exactly what Perry and Austin’s parents were trying to do: allow their youngsters increasing independence on the water.

Now, many parents are wondering, What can I do differently with my kids?

At least one answer lies in the increasingly sophisticated features of marine anti-theft technology.

Here’s why. Many parents of young boaters already set boundaries, just as Perry and Austin’s parents tried to do. In fact, multiple news reports stated that the boys had permission to take Austin’s 19-foot boat on the Loxahatchee River, in the Jupiter Inlet and on the Intracoastal Waterway, but not out of the inlet into open ocean, which appears to be what they did without their parents’ knowledge.

At that point, the parents lost touch with the kids, and the kids lost touch with civilization, either because they went out of cellphone range or because they got into trouble and didn’t know how (or didn’t have the equipment) to call for help.

The basic features of today’s marine anti-theft systems could resolve those problems for other families in the future. Consider the following story, which happened just a few months before Perry and Austin went missing.

GOST security tracking system for boats

The GOST NT-Evolution 2.0 tracking system has geofence features.

In the Abacos section of the Bahamas, thieves stole a 31-foot Yellowfin fitted with a GOST NT-Evolution 2.0 security tracking system. The system immediately sent out what GOST calls a geofence breach track, letting the owner know via email and text messages that the boat had left its designated perimeter. The system continued to send position reports from the boat, using an advanced Google Earth interface and the Inmarsat network of satellites to track the vessel’s path. Had the installed siren and strobe not been disarmed for servicing, they would have lit up the boat as well, notifying anyone within sight or earshot that something was wrong.

In the end, the owner got his boat back by working with authorities to trace its exact path.

The system could just as easily be used by parents wanting to be alerted, via email or text message, that their kids' boat has left a designated geofence perimeter (say, by leaving the Intracoastal Waterway).

The GOST system also has a reverse geofence feature. It can be set up to alert the boat’s owner when a boat enters a forbidden area. Some owners of fishing fleets use the reverse geofence feature to ensure their boats are avoiding protected waters. Parents wanting to give their kids independence on inland waterways could just as easily use it to ensure the kids stay away from the open ocean.

SPOT is another company whose products could help families in similar ways. SPOT is a subsidiary of Globalstar, which owns its own satellites, allowing devices like its Trace and Gen3 to work outside of cellphone range.

“People use it for boats, snowmobiles, even cars,” says spokeswoman Erica Kelt. “It communicates with satellites, and you can see where your boat is.”


The SPOT Gen3 satellite tracking device includes an SOS button.

SPOT’s Trace and Gen3 devices have a GPS function that lets users see waypoints at any time. Parents could use the system to see where the boat is while teenagers are on it. The Gen3, in addition to the GPS function, has an SOS "help" button that sends a message in case of emergency. (To learn more about satellite messaging and emergency communications, read Global Communications: Saving Lives or Saving Face). That could include an alert from kids out on a boat who have gone beyond their boundary and gotten into trouble.

In other words, the SPOT system could work for the kids as well as for the parents in a situation like the recent tragedy. (Since SPOT launched in 2007, the company has claimed more than 3,800 rescues worldwide from people hitting that SOS button.)

“A lot of hikers, racers, hunters, boaters—all different kinds of people use it that travel outside of cell range, or even inside of cell range because it provides peace of mind,” Kelt says.

Interestingly, neither GOST nor SPOT representatives contacted for this article were aware of specific cases where parents were using these products to keep tabs on boating teenagers. Perhaps the parents just didn't tell the manufacturers what they're up to, or maybe parents haven’t thought of it yet. Anyone with a teenager at home may instead be thinking of safety on the roads instead of the waterways: “I’m sure parents have put Traces on the cars,” Kelt says.

There’s no reason that the same logic can’t extend to boats too. Let's give our kids the boating independence they crave, while keeping them a little bit safer too.