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After tragedy, Minnesota family launches 'Aqua Alert' to help search for missing boaters

A Minnesota family is turning a tragedy on the water into something that could help save other lives.

DESTIN, Florida — A Minnesota family is behind a first-of-its-kind alert system that debuted in Florida this week. Aqua Alert is similar to an Amber Alert system but for missing boaters and kayakers.

On Feb. 13, 2021, David Schink, 61, went out in his kayak while in Destin, Florida and never returned.

"Dave loved to paddle and he was out there nearly every day," said David's widow, Judy Schink.

The couple lived in Champlin, Minnesota but would spend their winters in Florida. On Feb. 13 when David did not return by nightfall, Judy called 911.

The U.S. Coast Guard searched for about 50 hours — covering over 9,000 nautical square miles — but did not find David's body. Searchers only found his kayak and a broken paddle.

RELATED: Family of missing Minnesota kayaker aims to prevent future tragedies on the water

"I know David was an excellent swimmer. He was a collegiate swimmer," Judy said. "If this could happen to him, it could happen to a lot of other people."

Judy said while the Coast Guard did send out a notification, "you have to be on your boat; you have to be on your ham radio... and you have to be on Channel 16 which is the emergency broadcast system."

She went on to explain, "There were over 150 fishing vessels, big huge vessels alone, in the harbor not counting private crafts. Had they been able to go out and look for him right away, we would've had, I believe, a very good chance of recovering David and finding him still alive." 

Credit: Tom Schink
David and Judy Schink of Champlin, Minnesota.

Son Daniel Schink remembers thinking, "There's gotta be a better way to share this information with people that are in the area." 

Daniel wondered why there was not something like an Amber Alert but for missing boaters. 

"It's needed in lots of places," he said. 

The family came up with Aqua Alert. 

"The idea is you would ping or notify a phone in the area of the location that a boater has gone missing," Daniel said. 

Earlier in the week, Aqua Alert launched in Okaloosa County where David disappeared. 

The city of Destin had given the family approval to move ahead with the project. They also worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office (OCSO). 

The new Aqua Alert allows volunteer boaters to be notified when authorities need help for water searches. People can download the OCSO's App and turn Aqua Alerts on. 

"As the Schinks have worked to make this national... it's going to help save lives by creating a wider base in the boating community that something is amiss and you need to keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your situation," said Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis during a press conference on Sept. 21. 

Credit: Gary Knox
Judy Schink and her son, Daniel Schink.

"We're not going to stop until we've done our best to make it go nationwide and maybe even international," Judy said. 

Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips offered the Aqua Alert as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that passed through the House. Now U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is advocating for Aqua Alert on the Senate side. If it passes the Senate, the U.S. Coast Guard would implement pilot programs which could start as early as Jan. 2023. 

"I'm just excited to see this become a reality so that we can take what has been a tragedy and turn it into something better for people so that they don't have to experience what we've been through," said Daniel, who is encouraging people to talk to their U.S. senators about Aqua Alert. 

While reflecting on everything they've been able to accomplish so far, Judy got emotional, saying, "Very rewarding. It's been a long haul and so to have something purposeful come out of David's incident is very meaningful." 

This week, Judy will be attending the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators to advocate for Aqua Alert. 

Judy said this trip will be her sixth out-of-state trip for the project and they are down to their last $2,000. Anyone who would like to help can donate to the Dave Schink Memorial Fund on GoFundMe

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