ST. PETERSBURG — It was her ritual: Set up the beach chairs. Walk into the waves. Pause where water meets waist. Say a prayer.
She did this every time she visited the beach.
But Sunday, Michelle Dresser's family was left to pray for her as rescuers pulled the unresponsive woman from the calm water.
Dresser, 56, died later at Bayfront Medical Center of an apparent drowning.
A frequent beachgoer and seashell collector, Dresser was paddling near the North Beach picnic area of Fort De Soto Park at about 11 a.m. when a lifeguard noticed she had flipped. Her face was in the water.
"It was a perfect, beautiful day and then — bam," said Roger Slabihoud, 50, Dresser's boyfriend of eight years. "Everything changed."
Dresser's daughter, Jamie Lynn Smith, 22, was with her mother when it happened, Slabihoud said. They were at an annual picnic with friends.
Slabihoud remembers watching Dresser walk into the water. She looked so happy, he said.
"Her mother's ashes were spread in the ocean," Slabihoud said. "She goes out there to talk to her mom. She does this all the time."
But something went wrong Sunday.
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner will perform an autopsy to determine what happened to Dresser in the water.
Slabihoud has his theories. Dresser had suffered a dizzy spell a few days before, maybe she had another one in the gulf, he said.
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigators said they found no evidence of foul play.
Dresser, a former flight attendant, was an excellent swimmer, Slabihoud said. She never had any trouble in the water.
The couple lived in Clearwater, where they moved to be closer to Smith. They had a chihuahua, a garden.
"When I got home, all I could think of was how am I going to explain this to the dog?" Slabihoud said. "She's gone too soon. Way, way too soon."
It was not immediately clear what would be done with Dresser's remains, but Slabihoud said it had been her wish to someday rejoin her mother — in the sea.
"She was very spiritual," he said. "She found peace there."
An investigation into Dresser's death continued Monday.
Marissa Lang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.