‘I knew if I stayed I would drown too, and the kids would never be found’
GARRY MACKAY is standing on a grassy outcrop above Loch Gairloch. Behind him a wall of jagged rocks falls sharply to the shore. To the south-west, the Cuillins loom darkly on the horizon.
Oblivious to the wind whipping his face, he points to a patch of sea between the coastline and Longa Island, where a shaft of sunlight has forced its way through clouds and is shimmering on the water.
It was in this spot, almost a month ago, that the Canadian canoe carrying him, his friend Ewen Beaton and their four children capsized, killing everyone but him and his elder daughter Callie. The water that day was flat and calm as the two families launched the boat from the beach below the Big Sands caravan park, Garry recalls, and only slightly more rippled in the deeper waters where they went to fish. As they rowed, they were chatting happily about dolphins and basking sharks and killer whales.
But, in a split second, everything changed. As Garry stood up to put some mackerel in a box, the boat tilted first one way and then the other, before flipping over and throwing everyone into the sea.
What happened next will stay with Garry forever. As the canoe sank, he watched helpless as Ewen lost his grip and drowned. With no-one in sight, and no life jacket, he was forced to make a choice no parent should ever face: to stay with his girls, eight-year-old Callie and Grace, five, and Ewen’s boys, five-year-old Ewen and Jamie, two – or to leave them while he swam to shore to raise the alarm.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he says. “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.’ ”
Against the odds, Garry made it to the shore, clambered over the rocks, ran a mile in bare feet over rough ground and raised the alarm, but it was too late to save them. Despite a major rescue operation, involving the coastguard, a helicopter and local boats, Ewen, Jamie and, finally, Grace, died. Only Callie, who decided to follow her dad and, in an astonishing feat of endurance, swam more than 500 metres to safety, survived.
Just a few weeks have passed since the tragedy. Most days, Garry replays the sequence of events, frame by frame, like some never-ending horror movie. But the realisation that Grace, who loved Moshi Monsters and animals, has gone forever is only just beginning to sink in.
Retracing the journey the families took on their last day together is harrowing for the 35-year-old delivery van driver. Some memories are so traumatic he struggles to share them, and he smokes cigarette after cigarette to steady his nerves. But he is prepared to tell his story in the hope that it will make others realise how a series of minor misjudgments can escalate into a full-scale disaster.
In particular, he wants to highlight the difference between buoyancy aids, which all the children were wearing, and life jackets – a distinction he believes is lost on many people.
“When I decided to swim to the shore, I believed the children were wearing life jackets,” he says. “ 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.”
Meeting Garry, a former squaddie who has served in Northern Ireland, for the first time you might mistake him for a bit of a man’s man; the kind who’s always ready with a quick quip, but at a loss when it comes to expressing his deeper emotions. But nothing could be further from the truth. As he talks articulately of all he, Wendy (his partner and mother of the girls) and Callie have been through, it is clear he is a loving father, who forged a deep bond with both his daughters and was engaged in every aspect of their young lives.
Travelling from his home in Muir of Ord towards Gairloch, he points out the garage where he bought the girls ice creams; the small loch at which he stopped to wash messy faces; and then, as we arrive at the beach, the spot where he stood in front of Callie to protect her from potential prying eyes as she took off her tights – a litany of everyday moments which, for him, represent the last vestiges of normal family life.
For someone caught up in his own nightmare, Garry is also acutely sensitive to how the tragedy has impacted on others. Obviously, he is devastated for Ewen’s wife Joanne, who has lost her entire family. But he is concerned too for the feelings of those inadvertently caught up in events, from the woman who stayed at his side as the rescue operation unfolded to the chaplain at Yorkhill Hospital, who bore the brunt of his anger after Grace died.
His own pain has been exacerbated by fears that some may judge him for leaving the children, for surviving when others didn’t, but he insists he took the only possible option. “I have lots of ‘what ifs’ about that day,” he says. “But as far as what happened after the canoe capsized, my mind, my heart and my conscience are clear. I did everything I could to try to save the children.”
Garry and Ewen (whom Garry calls Beaton) had been friends for the best part of 10 years, ever since they discovered a common love for the outdoors. Living just a few miles apart, they spent most of their free time together, camping, Munro-bagging and setting the world to rights.
They laughed a lot too. Sitting in the front room of his home, Garry plays a short video of them snowboarding, Ewen somewhat more expertly than Garry. As Garry makes his way a short distance down the hill, before falling off, Ewen can be heard chuckling in the background.
“Oh, Beaton was much fitter than me,” Garry says. “He could think out of the box too – in all the time I knew him I never once walked into his house and found him watching television – he was always out making something in the garden. He was a real Bear Grylls.”
As their children grew, the men began involving them in their activities, eager to open their eyes to the beauty of the landscape. It was on a camping trip to Loch Morlich a couple of months ago, Garry says, when the families had rented Canadian canoes, that Ewen, from Beauly, set his heart on owning his own boat. Within a couple of weeks, he had picked one up and it was his pride and joy. He went out in it every few days and had made and varnished little oars for his boys.
Like so many accidents, the roots of the Gairloch tragedy lie in a series of tiny twists of fate. For a start, Garry hadn’t planned to meet up with Ewen that weekend; he was supposed to be spending it with some lads from work in Mallaig. But a couple of minor mishaps meant he couldn’t go, so when he was at a loose end on the morning of Sunday 26 August and heard that Ewen was heading for Gairloch, he jumped at the chance to join him. Grabbing their buckets and spades, he and the girls climbed into his work van and made their way to the west coast, picking up a couple of nets along the way. At Big Sand beach, Garry paints a picture of the children which is so vivid you can almost hear their voices, Jamie pouring sand on himself, Grace playing with her bucket and spade, and Callie and Ewen exploring the rock pools, while their dads drank a single beer each from a four-pack of Peroni.
Soon Ewen got the canoe off the top of his car and they all climbed in. Ewen at the back with Jamie between his legs, Garry next, with Grace on his left then Callie and Ewen jnr. Ewen snr only had four buoyancy aids, which the children had already put on long before the canoe was launched into the calm, clear water.
In the beginning everything went smoothly. They rowed out to Longa Island, the kids happily swapping nets and oars, and tried to fish in a couple of places, but the water was too shallow, so they made their way back and headed north-west along the coastline, investigating its crevices and sea caves.
On one occasion, Garry was conscious of a wave caused by the wake of a bigger boat passing; at another, he felt the canoe tilt slightly as Ewen held Jamie over the side for a wee. But there was nothing which alerted him to imminent danger and Ewen, who was more used to being out in the canoe than him, seemed perfectly at ease. At some point, the men took the decision to go to deeper waters to try to fish again; they headed diagonally towards Longa Island.
When they stopped, about half a kilometre from the shore, Ewen dropped his rod and quickly hooked four mackerel, two of which fell off. He swung the rod round and removed the fish, giving one each to Callie and Ewen to hold.
By now Garry, who has been tearful on and off throughout the interview, is struggling to speak. He goes on with his account, pausing every now and again to regain his composure. From time to time he lights another cigarette. He says he caught some fish too. A couple of them were lying on the floor of the boat flapping around and there was blood on Garry’s bare foot. Callie said: “That’s gross,” and Ewen asked Garry 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 Ewen: ‘That almost capsized.’ I opened up the box, I put one fish in, I went to put the second fish in and the boat tilted the other way to the side where Ewen was bringing up more fish – and, almost in slow motion, the boat capsized.”
There followed a period of blind panic; at first Grace’s head was trapped under the canoe, but she managed to free herself. Soon the two men were holding on to each side of the upturned boat, with their children holding onto them. “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. I saw a mackerel hanging off her and thought, holy crap, she has been hooked and she’ll be dragged under.”
As Garry grappled to find the hook, then realised there wasn’t one and that Callie had managed to shake the fish off, Ewen snr was screaming, ‘Help. Help.’
“At first I thought, it will be OK because we will keep holding onto the boat and someone will rescue us,” says Garry. But then I looked around and there was nothing – not a house, a boat or a person – in sight and I realised we were in serious trouble.”
It is difficult to know how long they stayed like that, but eventually the canoe started to flip back over. “I thought, ‘Great, we will get back inside,’ but then my heart went into my stomach because it was already three-quarters full of water.”
By the time the canoe came all the way round it was already sinking. As it went down, it became increasingly difficult to hold on to, but they struggled on for another four or five minutes. Garry isn’t sure what happened next – whether Ewen snr lost his grip or whether, despite not having a buoyancy aid, he decided to try to swim with the boys, who were still holding on to him.
“If he did, he didn’t get further than 4ft before he went under.” He resurfaced and Garry screamed at him to get back to the canoe, but he couldn’t stay above the water. When he came up a second time, Garry shouted to the boys to let go of him. Garry’s voice fades to a whisper at this point as he battles to keep his emotions in check. “Ewen said, ‘I’ve let go.’ And I knew that was him away.”
It was at that point Garry took the decision to leave. Telling all the children to wait together, he set off, not believing he would make it. Ewen jnr was holding Jamie, who was pale but still conscious. After about 300 yards, Garry heard a voice shouting “Dad, Dad” and saw Callie swimming some way off diagonally ahead of him. She was clutching the boys’ dinosaur under her arm because she knew it was their favourite toy.
Garry didn’t see Callie again until much later; he points out the spot where he first spotted her coming towards him through the heather. “I ran to her and put her on my knee – and there was a tear in her eye. She told me she’d left her life jacket at the water’s edge so I would know she’d made it.”
Garry himself struggled in the water; he was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt with a hood, and the hood kept filling up, hindering his progress. When he finally got to dry land, his first feeling was relief; he thought he’d made it and the children would be saved. But he soon realised he still had a long way to go. After climbing over the rocks, he started running in the direction of the caravan park. At one point he stopped to shout to the boat which had passed them earlier and was now sitting at Longa Island, but no-one saw him. So he kept going until, finally, the roofs of three houses appeared on the horizon. Like a madman he ran towards them, jumping over fences and trampling across gardens.
The first and second houses were empty, but there were people in the driveway of the third. He collapsed on his knees in front of them as he urged them to phone the emergency services.
Garry’s recollection of the next few hours is understandably patchy; he remembers trying to direct the helicopter to the right spot; pacing up and down as he waited for information and witnessing the desperate tears of the doctor who had given the boys CPR on the beach.
In the end, Ewen and Jamie were airlifted to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, while Grace, who had been found floating face-down was taken to Broadford Hospital on Skye, where nurses worked on her for more than four hours.
Later, after she’d been transferred to Yorkhill, he and Wendy were told her brain had been deprived of oxygen for so long she’d probably have suffered irreparable damage. She underwent an operation, but at around 2pm the following day, doctors said she was no longer responding and there was nothing they could do.
“We were allowed to hold her and give her a cuddle before they took all the tubes out,” Garry says. “She was such a beautiful little girl, but honestly if you timed her beautifulness by three, that was her heart. She was so kind and caring.
“And that’s what makes it so hard – I mean I haven’t had a clean past, I have done things I’m not proud of, but she was so perfect and her whole life ahead of her – it’s just absolutely heartbreaking.”
Back up on the heather above the loch, Garry is talking about making some kind of memorial for Grace and the Beatons to put on the rocks close to where the boat went down. It’s an especially poignant location, given that, despite an extensive search, Ewen snr’s body has not been recovered.
Now the early burst of activity that accompanies death is subsiding, he needs a focus. Of course, he and Wendy have Callie to worry about. Although she appears to be coping well she hasn’t cried much or talked about what she’s seen and lost. She’s fine during the day, but when she’s lying in bed, she has time to think.
One night she came downstairs and said she could hear Grace breathing; another night, she said she wished the children could all have swum back together hand in hand. Garry has tried to get her to open up and has contacted bereavement counsellors in case she needs outside support.
On a separate front, he hopes to spearhead an awareness-raising campaign on life jackets and investigate whether they could be fitted with GPS which could be activated in an emergency.
Losing so much, so dramatically, has changed his perspective on the world, he says. Counterintuitively, it has restored his faith in humanity. “When I think back on how Beaton and I used to moan about how the world was going to pot – well, so many people have gone out of their way to help us. I know that for every bad person out there, there are lots of good people. I’ve learned so much. And I think I’m a better man now.”
The tragedy has also made him reflect on his spiritual beliefs; while he is not hugely religious, he feels there must be something beyond the here and now. “I have a friend who is an atheist. He said to me ‘You see Garry, there’s no f***ing God or none of this would have happened. I said: ‘I need to stop you there’. I want to think that Beaton is up there somewhere looking after the three of them and that they are all playing together. When I said my goodbyes to Gracie, I whispered to her: ‘Life is so short, darling. I will see you again.’ To think otherwise is just too dark.”
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Monday 20 May 2013
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