Photo: East Hampton Star
Everyone who swims in the surf has a scare at one point or another.The current grabs you and pulls you out to sea.
Instead of going with it, you fight it.
Soon you’re exhausted.
In January, a husband and wife from New York were swimming together in the Caribbean when this happened. The wife, Maria Beaulieu, made it out of the water. Her husband of 24 years, John McWhinnie, didn’t.
Summer’s coming, she said, and people are headed to the beaches to swim. So she wanted to describe what had happened.
Jan. 6, 2012, was a Friday. The couple were vacationing on Virgin Gorda. They packed a light lunch and hiked 45 minutes from their hotel to get to a more secluded beach. “We got there about 10 a.m. The tide was high, the surf very big. I was in shock. I had never seen it like that. It was a gorgeous day, big white puffy clouds. I was stunned at the size of the waves — but beautiful.”
The couple took several cooling dips during the day. The snorkelling was compromised by sand and silt kicked up by the surf. “On one of the last times, he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t like it.’ I said, ‘I like it a click less.’ That’s what we used to say, ‘a click more or a click less.’ “
“I don’t like being slammed. I grew up on lakes. I love it when the ocean is like a lake, a beautiful gentle ride. That’s why I loved to go down to the Caribbean. The movement is so healing, and for us, with no kids, and John’s season is the summer, we’d go when everyone else was coming back.”
Ms. Beaulieu’s eyes stared out her window, focused on a group of chickens feeding in the past. “We only had a nut bar and a couple of apples. Right before the last time we went in, a chicken was looking for food. John being John decided to share his apple. He tossed a piece to the chicken but scared it off.”
“We looked at the water. The tide was out. It looked like we might snorkel. ‘When we leave, the chicken might calm down.’ “
“John went in ahead of me. I was defogging my mask,” Ms. Beaulieu said, returning to the moment she saw her husband taken by the rip current.
“We were in the water 30 seconds. How did this happen? Nobody was in the water. We didn’t mean to go so far out. What’s going on? He looked at me. I knew it was panic. Then we hit coral. Oh my God, what way do we go? And the waves were hitting us. At one point I pushed him toward the beach. It probably made it worse for him.”
Ms. Beaulieu said she remembered seeing Mr. Chait and his wife watching them from the beach. “I was waving, I knew I needed to do the two-arm wave. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It probably further panicked John. I saw George put his things down. I told John he had to calm down. ‘You’ve got to breathe. Just lean back; pick your feet up.’ He was looking at me for guidance. It was then I heard George say, ‘Go right, go right.’ “
“I saw him take at least one stroke to the right. Walls of water were hitting me. John was on the other side of the walls. I was exhausted. I think I was out of the current. George was on the sandbar trying to see John. He brought me to the sandbar. I said, ‘He’s panicking. Please go get him.’ I heard a woman scream for me to get out of the water. I knew George knew how to get us out of this mess. I allowed him, put faith in him. I had taken on water, exhausted, given my all, everything I could for John.”
Ms. Beaulieu recalled the agonizing moment she realised she could no longer help her husband. George Chait brought Mr. McWhinnie to shore. “For 45 minutes they worked on him.”
A Fulbright scholar and rare book dealer, John McWhinnie lived in East Hampton and New York City.
As his wife Maria concludes at the end of the story, “life turns on a dime.”
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