Taken by the Current in One Terrible Moment

John McWhinnie’s widow reflects on his drowning
Maria Beaulieu described the January drowning of her husband, John McWhinnie. She said she wanted the story told as a warning to swimmers, especially those unfamiliar with dangerous currents. Russell Drumm

    The terrible moment, the awful decision being forced upon her, the gut-wrenching scene in which she and her husband were the principal players was being played out in warm tropical water, under big puffy clouds that floated across a blue Caribbean sky above the island of Virgin Gorda.
    Maria Beaulieu was exhausted. Waves were breaking over her head. Her husband, John McWhinnie, was in the throes of severe panic. She could see it in his eyes. She told him he had to calm down, to try to float on his back, but she knew from past, far calmer times in the water together, that he didn’t believe he could. They became separated.
    The command “Swim to the right, swim to the right!” being shouted at her by a man she didn’t know, a man she had seen dive into the water after hearing her cries, suddenly made sense. He was telling them to go with the rip current that had them in its grip, not against it as they had been.
    Over and over, George Chait yelled at her to come toward him. There was a sandbar.
    “John had gone in ahead of me. I was defogging my mask. When I got in and looked up, wow! He was so far out. Maybe he saw something.” 
    Ms. Beaulieu met Mr. McWhinnie in 1987 at a “hideous bank processing center” in Maine where they both worked. Last month, overlooking Gardiner’s Bay from the house she had shared with her husband and soulmate of 24 years, Ms. Beaulieu stared out a window and far beyond the hilltop lawn where their marriage had taken place.
    She said that with summer coming on, with people going to the beach to swim, she wanted to tell her story.
    She described her husband as a poet philosopher, a man who had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously from Boston College, and who had taught in the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar before returning to the United States, where his love of rare books and manuscripts was kindled in the dusty archives of Columbia University.
    “He got to handle one-of-a-kind, exquisite things, and it was up there near Columbia in the book stalls on the street where he found a book by Kerouac that was signed with the odd line ‘look out for low-flying pigeons.’ He knew the signature. The guy was asking $40. We had no money. He was at school and I was making jewelry. The book sold for $600, and the bug bit.”
    Ms. Beaulieu said her husband was a rare book dealer first and foremost. For a time he had his own shop, Beatific Books, that grew out of his love for the beat writers and poets including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. “He was a frustrated writer. He wanted to write. I said, ‘Stop selling books and write one.’ He was a natural storyteller. He would entertain children he claimed not to enjoy, magical stories.”
    Mr. McWhinnie later managed Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, a rare book emporium and gallery in East Hampton, with a second shop located in New York City. “He developed a clientele over the course of eight years. He knew what they wanted.”
    “I was living in Houlton, Me. John was born in Michigan. His dad worked for Ford. He was 18. I was 19. He walked in the door wearing a vintage motorcycle jacket like a Ralph Lauren ad. Within a week we were dating. I knew he was it. This was the one. Our first date was on leap-year day. We took all these steps together in life.” Many were penurious in the beginning, she said. “We always lived year to year.”
    The couple discovered the Caribbean in the late 1990s. “We went to Guadeloupe. I’ve always been drawn to the water. We hadn’t snorkeled, but took a glass-bottomed boat at the Jacques Cousteau Preserve. Oh my God! We went to St. Lucia and snorkeled. He came up and said, ‘There’s a brown snake with pink polka dots.’ ”
    “He was uncomfortable in the water. He did a show at the East Hampton gallery in August one year, Michael Halsband’s surfing book.” The book featured the surfing legend Joel Tudor, who invited Mr. McWhinnie to California. “He got a lesson from Joel. He called me and said, ‘I just went surfing. I got up.’ It was a thrill for him. His face would light up when he caught a wave on a boogie board. He had a lot of surfer friends and he would talk conditions, but my Scotch-Irish-skinned husband was a bookworm. He loved this, our coffee chairs, the house built for this view, perfect for reading, relaxing.”
    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 snorkeling 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 realized she could no longer help her husband. George Chait brought Mr. McWhinnie to shore. “For 45 minutes they worked on him.”
    A man approached her. “I knew he didn’t have good news. He walked away, hoping, I guess. Then he came back a few minutes later. I stared him down. I’m going to change this in his eyes. You’re not going to tell me what you’re going to tell me.”
    She remembered thinking about her husband drowning. “He must have gotten to a spot when he couldn’t see me, when he gave into it. They say it’s euphoric.”
    John McWhinnie was 43. 
    “Life turns on a dime,” Ms. Beaulieu said. "There’s The Times, but I don’t read it. I don’t watch television. There are so many triggers. I feel his presence all the time.”


John was a great friend and had a truly stellar mind. His drowning was a major tragedy. Maria is so brave to relive it for us, to teach the dangers of nature. As a surfer for more than 40 years I've pulled hundreds of people from rips. Being this old I've learned there there are rips both in water and in life. A rip is like a river strongly flowing in one direction amid calm waters around it. It has an edge and end. " This too shall pass." The behavior for dealing with a rip is the same, for both water and in life. 1. Never panic, be patient and calm. 2. Don't fight directly against it, you won't win. 3. Go perpendicular to the current. You will move diagonally using its force, and eventually you'll be free of it. You come to its edge and move out of it, back into calm water.
I am so sorry for Maria. What a shocking and terrible loss. I really admired John. He was quite brilliant, with the mind of an artist. I will miss him too.
I will be more careful this summer -- myself, and concerning my kids -- because I read this. Thank you.
Yes, she was very brave to tell this story llike this. It's the right time of year, in East Hampton, for people to hear from her what happened. Maybe it will sink it. Often, the most fearless people in the water are those who simply don't know enough to be intimidated by the current and waves -- when they should be.