THEY grew up around the water, spending their free time boating and fishing, attuned from young ages to the wonders and dangers of life at sea.
Despite their youth, 14-year-old mates Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen were skilled seamen and often set off on solo boating trips off the coast of Florida, like many of the locals did.
Last Friday was no different. The pair stocked up on fuel near the Florida town of Jupiter and made their way to the seaside with their single-engine boat, which they would keep in the warm waters near the Loxahatchee River and the Intracoastal Waterway, a safe distance from the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
Both were accredited in boat safety and were strong swimmers. Perry, his family said, could swim before he could walk.
The water was their comfort zone. They were young but they were expert boaters.
“A lot of kids here have grown up around the water and have always been on boats,” a friend of the boys, 14-year-old Caden Key, said.
“You get familiar with the area and you know the waters and you feel confident going out.”
Not long after they went out, sometime after 1.30pm on Friday, trouble hit. A summer storm passed through the area, and Austin and Perry’s families began to worry about where they were.
By 5pm, the Coast Guard had been flagged. Austin and Perry were lost at sea.
On Sunday search crews spotted the boys’ overturned 5.8 metre boat, more than 290 kilometres from where they started their journey.
The pair have now been missing for five days. The Coast Guard has stepped up its desperate air and sea search for the pair, but has so far failed to find any trace of where the boys might have drifted after their boat capsized.
But their loved ones are adament the two skilled young seaman are alive. And if they are, it would an incredible story of survival.
Perry’s mother, Pamela Cohen, told CNN the boys’ experience on the water provided hope they were still alive.
“Both boys are very, very comfortable on the water,” she said.
“We’ve both always said that they’re just as comfortable on a boat and the water as they are on land.”
Cohen told NBC the athletic boys would be “doing everything that they possibly can to stay afloat and wait for us to come get them”.
Austin’s mother, Carly Black, agreed. “It’s not even second nature at this point. It’s in their blood,” she said.
“This is something they’ve prepared for their whole boating life. This is — they’re out there.”
Black also shot down rumours her son was trying to get to the Bahamas, telling thePalm Beach Post Austin knew he couldn’t access the islands without his passport. She also said Austin wasn’t allowed to go there without an adult, and wouldn’t have tried it in that boat, anyway.
As the search for the boys entered its fifth day, the Coast Guard said three boats and an aeroplane were scouring waters off Daytona Beach, Florida and north through Savannah, Georgia. A navy ship and other local officials’ boats have also joined the search.
The boys’ families have pledged a $100,000 reward as friends and strangers take to planes searching for clues, although the Coast Guard has discouraged such private searches.
Coast Guard chief petty officer Ryan Doss said other people have survived many days — even a week — at sea.
“We know it can happen and we’re hoping it happens again,” he said.
“As time goes on, certainly the probability of finding someone alive does decrease, but we’re still within the time frame where it’s definitely possible to find somebody alive.”
Meanwhile, the community of Jupiter have rallied together as the search for the teens continues.
NFL great Joe Namath, a neighbour of the boys’ families, is among those supporting them.
“The history of the high seas have survival rates over the years,” Namath said.
“There have been miracles out there, and we’re planning on finding the children.”
A teenager described as the best friend of Austin and Perry, Maxwell Bottcher, toldNBC News he might have been on the boat as well if he didn’t have to work that day.
“If I was out with them, I could have been the one that said, ‘No, this isn’t safe, we need to go back,’” he said. “I could have helped them out with driving. I could have just helped out in any way.”
As the chances of the boys’ survival diminishes, Maxwell says he, too, is confident the boys are alive.
“They know what to do if they get in trouble,” he said.
“They know how to make fresh water. I know they’re out there.”