Like Canadians everywhere, I look forward to the summer and to going to the beach. But this summer will be a different one for me. I know that nearly 500 Canadians drown every year, but until recently, I never thought it could happen to me.
I had a lot of experience in the water. I spent summer vacations at a cottage by a lake, canoed at summer camp, and later, when my parents moved our family to Vancouver, spent time sunning myself on a beach. Thanks to the Canadian Red Cross and the YMCA, I had taken hours of swimming lessons at public pools. I had even taught swimming classes for a brief time.
But the one thing I had never learned was just how easy it is to drown. To drown not in a storm, not at night, not alone, not even that far from shore, but within sight of a public beach and as many as 200 people, not one of whom would have noticed.
Late last August, I visited an old high-school buddy living near Vancouver. I joined him and one of the co-owners of his boat in sailing Howe Sound. We had planned a two-hour trip - three middle-aged professional men with safe, comfortable lives - on a boat we called Charley.
But a brilliant Saturday lay before us, and a brisk wind promised to take Charley anywhere. So, we decided to set sail for West Point Grey.
At the far end of the point is my old alma mater, the University of British Columbia. Just beyond the university grounds, below a series of cliffs, is Wreck Beach, which none of us had seen in more than 25 years. One after another, my companions whisked out their cellphones to call their spouses, offering the feeblest excuses to explain why they would be late for dinner.
To this day, Wreck Beach has a certain notoriety. Somewhat inaccessible because of the long, meandering trail to it from the university grounds, the place has always been wide open. Clothing optional. Alcohol and other banned substances. As we swapped our stories about it, Wreck Beach assumed the proportions of a second Woodstock.
About 200 metres off the beach, the water proved shallow. Worried about running Charley onto a sandbar, we anchored. Then we stripped, plunged into the water and, though fit, found it harder to make the swim to the beach than we had thought.
At Wreck Beach, no one even noticed our dramatic entrance. Twenty-five years on, the ramshackle food stalls on the beach now sported proper licences. No naked barmen or topless waitresses. And not much of a party, either. People sitting together in groups of two or three, talking. Others snoozing as they lay naked on the sand. A lone dancer swaying as a guitarist strummed some Jefferson Airplane.
We wandered around looking for the guy we had heard was selling beer. All we found were three uniformed city-parks employees ticketing those breaking municipal bylaws. Sometimes it's better remembering the past than trying to relive it.
Still shivering from our swim to the beach, I debated walking up to the university, catching three different buses to cross the city, then taking the ferry to get back to our starting point. But there was the matter of getting more clothes and shoes.
Instead, I joined my friends in swimming back to the boat. That was when we noticed a riptide. The boat kept slipping farther away. Thirty, then forty metres. Suddenly, my limbs seized up. I nearly passed out. I realized that it was not fatigue but hypothermia.
My life never passed before my eyes; the thoughts that flashed through my mind were of my own stupidity. It had started with us leaving the rubber dinghy back on the dock. We could have easily paddled to the beach in it. The whole trip looked like one mistake after another, and I was about to pay for that. It was only 4 p.m. The sun was still beaming down on me. I could see the crowd on the beach, even four or five other boats.
Fortunately, my companions had just boarded Charley. They heard me call out, "Guys, I'm not going to make it!"
One of them threw me the lifeline. It wasn't nearly long enough. But just the sight of it helped and I managed to swim to it. The end of the line had a vest-type life preserver rather than ring-shaped. I seized it in my arms.
My friend shouted. "Put your arms in it."
I tried lifting my left arm. "Can't do it!"
They quickly pulled me to the boat. Salvaging some dignity, I managed to scramble up the rope ladder and tumble into the boat, unaided. My companions winched up the anchor, and turned Charley toward home.
Chilled to the core, my teeth chattering, I scrounged up every bit of spare clothing we had and bundled myself in it.
We looked at one another, a little shame-faced.
"That was a bit too close."
"What if none of us had gotten to the boat?"
With the kind of gallows humour summoned on such occasions, my friend joked, "You know, dying is a real blow to the ego."
"Can you imagine the tabloid headline?" I replied. "After all, they call it Wreck Beach."
I hope I never experience that particular terror again. I have learned something new about the water and our limits. When I was a child and we returned to school in September, we were always asked to write about our summer. Last summer, I almost drowned. Sometimes, it's a very near thing. With so many Canadians heading for the water this summer, I offer this cautionary tale.
Gregory Strong lives in Vancouver and Tokyo.