SoWal beach ambassador helps 'strong swimmer' escape rip current on a double-red flag day

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

SEAGROVE BEACH — Delanne Bernier’s love for the outdoors helped her decide last year to become a South Walton volunteer beach ambassador, the duties of which include making visitors feel welcome, providing them information on local businesses, keeping the beaches clean and educating beachgoers about sea turtles and other wildlife.

“It’s a nice combination of exercise and community service,” Bernier, a Santa Rosa Beach resident and Realtor who often hits the beach in the trademark blue shirt of an ambassador, said Friday.

South Walton Volunteer Beach Ambassador Delanne Bernier helped a swimmer to free himself from a rip current on June 20 in the Gulf of Mexico.

On June 20, the first day of summer, Bernier unexpectedly took on the difficult role of a lifeguard and helped save a man’s life.

During the early afternoon on that double-red flag day when the water was closed to the public because of dangerous conditions, Bernier saw a young man caught in a rip current near a public neighborhood beach access by County Road 395 and Scenic Highway 30A.

“He wasn’t that far out,” Bernier said of the man, who she thinks was in his 20s. “The first thing I did was make sure someone called 911.”

To the man, “I pantomimed to stay calm and I was yelling, 'Swim to the side,' ” she said. “There were probably about 10 other people in the water trying to see what they could do.”

The other people in the water, as well as some on the beach, joined Bernier in instructing the man in danger to swim parallel to the shore to break free from the rip current.

“And he did. He broke out of the current,” Bernier said. “He came out on the beach and he was very shaky. The first thing he said was he felt nauseous. He had swallowed a significant amount of water. He expelled the water, and a doctor came up and surveyed what was going on.”

A South Walton volunteer beach ambassador helped a man escape from a rip current on a double-red flag day on June 20 in Seagrove Beach.

The near tragedy occurred far between lifeguard stations, she said. Bernier said the man who was in danger and a friend who tried to help him were “big, strong swimmers.”

“But they now understand that doesn’t matter when you’re caught in a rip current,” she said. “The main thing was people were listening to me and wanted me to take charge.”

Shortly after the man made it back to shore, Bernier went running to get other swimmers out of the water.

“The lifeguards never sat down” on that double-red flag day, she recalled. “I have such respect for them. They have such a tough job.”

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Bernier said when she first saw the man struggling in the rip current, she felt scared, “but only for a second or two. Our training (as beach ambassadors) kicked in, and we had a successful outcome. I didn’t want other people to get hurt. I wanted to keep people as calm as possible.”

She said the rescue was “not about me, but the training and resources” the ambassadors received. And she praised the leadership of Lead Beach Ambassador Laurie Reichenbach, who helped spearhead the ambassador program for the Walton County Tourist Development Council in 2016.

Reichenbach said Bernier “managed herself extremely well in a moment of crisis” on June 20.

“Her training kicked in and she remained calm,” Reichenbach said. “She kept it all together and engaged many other people to assist her. (The young man in danger) was actively drowning and was full of water when he got on shore.”

Members of the volunteer beach ambassador team have had to direct swimmers caught in rip currents to swim parallel to the shore several times already this year, said Reichenbach, who added that Walton County faces a shortage of lifeguards.

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The beach ambassador program currently has almost 200 members. While they help patrol 26 miles of beach from March through October, Reichenbach said the ambassadors are not trained to enter the Gulf and make water rescues.

For more information about the ambassador program, contact Reichenbach at lauriereichenbach@gmail.com.

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