After a Devastating Loss, One Family’s Resilience Leads to a Lifesaving Rescue

The Aqua Alert system makes others aware of ongoing water searches in an effort to improve rescue outcomes.
DeNell Hendricks and her family
DeNell Hendricks (right, with her granddaughters Brooklyn and Andie and the dolphin boat crew who rescued Andie) was almost impossible to spot from the air. Courtesy the Hendricks Family

Three years ago, kayaker David Schink was swept into the Gulf of Mexico, never to be seen again.

“He didn’t say goodbye. He said, ‘See you later—we’ll go for a walk when I get back,’” recalls his wife, Judy Schink.

In the aftermath of David’s disappearance, Judy and their three grown sons struggled to make sense of the tragedy. If searchers had mobilized sooner, they thought, perhaps David would have been found in time.

Judy and Dan Schink
Judy Schink and her son Dan Schink helped create the Aqua Alert system in memory of David Schink, who disappeared while kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago. Courtesy the Schink Family

The family funneled their grief into action, working tirelessly to create the Aqua Alert program, a maritime version of the popular Amber Alert system. Florida’s Okaloosa County and the city of Destin launched the pilot program in 2022. Months later, the very first Aqua Alert led to the rescue of a grandmother and granddaughter on the same stretch of coast where David was lost.

DeNell Hendricks was visiting Destin with her granddaughters Andie, 14, and Brooklyn, 19, in August 2023. They rented a pair of personal watercraft and traveled through the East Pass into the Gulf of Mexico, with DeNell and Andie on one PWC and Brooklyn on the other. A short distance offshore, a large wave knocked DeNell and Andie off their PWC. 

DeNell was separated from the PWC and was immediately caught in an outgoing riptide. Meanwhile, Brooklyn tried to help Andie climb aboard her PWC. When that was unsuccessful, Brooklyn told her younger sister to hold on to the other PWC and don’t let go, no matter what. Then she went for help.

Brooklyn rode straight back to the rental dock, and within minutes, employees were on the water looking for Andie. When they couldn’t find her, they called 911, and dispatchers immediately issued an Aqua Alert—the first in the history of the program.

The alert squawked on cellphones belonging to boaters throughout the region, describing the missing people, a description of their PWCs, and their last known location. A dolphin tour boat responded, and in less than 30 minutes, Andie was safely aboard. DeNell, however, was nowhere to be found. 

In just a few minutes, the current had carried her hundreds of yards from the PWC. As boaters notified by the Aqua Alert and on VHF Channel 16 searched for her, the Florida Wildlife Commission launched a helicopter to join the hunt. Pilot Todd Tolbert flew a search pattern for nearly three hours before he spotted a glimmer on the water. It was the sun reflecting on DeNell’s watch as she waved at the chopper.

“The seas were pretty rough, there were a lot of whitecaps, so you think you see something, and then it’s just a whitecap of a wave,” Tolbert told WEAR 3 News in Pensacola. “When I saw her move her arm, I knew.”

DeNell was wearing a blue life jacket, which blended into the waters of the Gulf and made it hard for rescuers to spot her. Even after Tolbert vectored four rescue boats directly to DeNell’s location about 3 miles offshore, she was nearly invisible in the water. “The only thing I think we saw that day was her face,” FWC Officer Thomas Pritchard said.

DeNell with FWC officers
DeNell meeting with Florida Wildlife Commission officers who rescued her from the Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Three-and-a-half hours after the rogue wave knocked DeNell into the water, rescuers pulled her aboard an FWC response boat and rushed her to shore. She was hypothermic and so exhausted from battling the waves that officers decided to airlift her to the hospital. A doctor later told her she would not have lasted another 30 minutes in the water. 

A great deal goes into a successful search-and-rescue operation. DeNell and her granddaughter Andie owe their lives to everyone who joined the search effort, including the US Coast Guard, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Marine Unit, Florida Fish and Wildlife officers, and Screaming Eagles Dolphin Tours. All of them say that the Aqua Alert played a critical role in the successful rescue.

Last week, DeNell and Andie had the opportunity to thank Judy and her son Daniel Schink personally at the National Life Jacket Convention in Clearwater Beach, Florida. They spotted each other in the hotel and hugged for two solid minutes, Judy said.

“It’s instant family. I owe my life to them, because if it weren’t for them and their sacrifice, I wouldn’t be here,” DeNell said.

Aqua Alerts have now been issued three times, including one for former University of South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley, who was rescued 12 miles off Grayton Beach, Florida, after high winds drove his fishing kayak into the Gulf.

Aqua Alert will soon go national, thanks to legislation that passed the US Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Coast Guard will launch three new pilot programs in different areas of the country, starting in 2025. The Schinks are thrilled but don’t plan to rest until Aqua Alert is implemented everywhere. 

DeNell too is working to improve boating safety. Since her rescue, she has advocated for brightly colored life jackets in preference to muted colors that are harder to spot, such as the blue life jacket she was wearing that day. Ultimately, she wants to change life jacket requirements so that they’re offered only in bright colors and with reflective tape that improves nighttime visibility. It’s no easy task, but the Schinks have shown how it’s done in one word: perseverance.

Download the Aqua Alert app.

 The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit