THE ONLY surviving parent of the boating accident on the Gairloch that claimed the lives of a father and three young children has told how the canoe capsized after he stood up to pack away fish they had caught.
Garry Mackay, whose five-year-old daughter Grace drowned last month alongside his best friend, Ewen Beaton, 32, and his two sons, Ewen, 5 and Jamie, 2, also said that the hardest decision of his life was leaving the children to swim off in search of help.
Speaking for the first time about the boating tragedy, which happened on 26 August when the two fathers took their sons and daughters on a fishing trip in a Canadian canoe, Mr Mackay said that after Ewen Beaton had slipped under the water and drowned, he had no choice but to swim off and raise the alarm.
He had to leave his own daughters, Callie, 8 and Grace, and Ewen Beaton’s sons in the water, wearing what he thought were life-jackets but were buoyancy aids which were incapable of keeping their heads out of the water if they became unconscious.
In an interview with The Scotsman’s sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, he said: “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. But I knew if I stayed I would drown, too, and the kids would never be found. I turned to Gracie first. I will always remember her scared little face, but she had full confidence in me. I told her, ‘You have to try to bob in the water like Callie’s doing, and I will be as quick as I can.”
Mr Mackay made it to shore where he clambered over rocks, then ran a mile in bare feet to raise the alarm. Despite a major rescue operation, Ewan, Jamie and Grace died. Only Callie, who followed her father and swam 500 metres to safety, survived.
He explained that both he and Ewan Beaton had a single bottle of beer each before heading out in the Canadian canoe, which Mr Beaton had bought a few months before. There was only four buoyancy aids which were put on the four children.
After first heading out towards Longa Island in the Gairloch, they headed north west, before moving to deeper water to fish. After catching four mackerel, Mr Beaton asked Mr Mackay to put them in the box.
“I was sitting on the box. I stood up and I turned around so I was facing Beaton and the boat tilted about four or five inches from the water at Gracie’s side, before righting itself. I said to Ewan: ‘That almost capsized’. I opened up the box, put one fish in, I went to put the second fish in and the boat tilted the other way to where Ewen was bringing up more fish – and, almost in slow motion, the boat capsized.”
The two men then held onto the upturned boat with their children holding onto them. Mr Mackay said: “The girls were screaming. I was trying to calm them down and then Callie let out a piercing scream and said, a fish had bitten her … Callie managed to shake the fish off.” Ewan snr was screaming: ‘Help, help’.”
Mr Mackay is unsure how long they clung onto the boat before it began to turn back over and, three quarters filled with water, began to sink. He is also unsure whether Mr Beaton lost his grip on the sinking canoe or tried to swim with his two sons holding on to him. He went under.
When Mr Beaton resurfaced, Mr Mackay screamed at him to get back to the canoe, but he was struggling to keep his head above the water. When Mr Beaton resurfaced a second time, Mr Mackay shouted to the boys to let go of their father, but once again he sank under the surface. “I knew that was him away.”
Mr Mackay gave an interview to Scotland on Sunday to highlight how a series of minor misjudgments escalated into a tragedy and the difference between buoyancy aids and life jackets.
He said: “When I decided to swim to the shore, I believed the children were wearing life jackets. I wasn’t sure I would make it, but I thought that if I managed to get help, they would be OK because although their bodies slow down with the cold, children can survive for quite a long time in the sea. I didn’t realise they were only wearing buoyancy aids, which don’t keep your head out of water if you lose consciousness.”