'I thought I was watching my uncle die' - Rip current turns day out into near-tragedy

'I thought I was watching my uncle die' - Rip current turns day out into near-tragedy

“I’ll come back for you.” These were the last words David Rawlston shouted to his uncle, Gordon MacDonald, as he and his daughter were wrenched away by a vicious rip current off the coast of west Scotland.
An aerial view of water in choppy conditions.

David and his daughter made it back to shore before rescue teams arrived, with the help of a passing surfer, but Gordon was not so fortunate; he was found lifeless and face down in the water. 

What had started as a fun trip to the coast had quickly turned into a tragedy unfolding before their eyes. 

David feared the worst. His daughter was inconsolable. Gordon’s life was in serious peril.

Gordon MacDonald, 56, was on holiday in Campbeltown last summer, visiting family including his nephew and son. Having grown up in Muasdale, a lot of family still live in the area, and he has been to Westport Beach more times in his life than he can count. 

Nephew David has a farm outside of town and has also been to the same beach on numerous occasions. 

So they didn’t think much of it as they packed up some towels and items and headed down to the water’s edge with David’s 14-year-old daughter and six-year-old son on the beautifully sunny day in August. 

While the six-year-old built sandcastles, the other three were paddling near the shore, no deeper than waist-height, when they suddenly got caught by a powerful, narrow channel of fast-moving water; a rip current. 

Within seconds they were 10-plus metres from safety and immediately in trouble, as they found themselves up to their necks in water and still being pulled offshore. 

David shouted for help, as he quickly realised he could not fight the current and could not get back to shore.  

And he was not going to be able to save his daughter either. 

Gordon had had the same terrifying realisation, of how at risk the young teenager was, and pushed David’s daughter towards his nephew. 

The two fathers ‘looked at each other, without saying a word, and immediately just knew there was no decision’, David needed to focus on getting her back to shore. 

“And he [Gordon] just went on to his back and floated away.”  

The next time David saw Gordon, HM Coastguard and RNLI teams were performing lifesaving medical care. 

An onlooker, described by David as a ‘complete stranger until fate played a hand, now we have a bond forever, he saved our life, was on holiday in the area and surfing when he spotted the family in danger. 

He rang 999 and asked for the Coastguard, reporting people in difficulty in the water. Campbeltown Coastguard Rescue Team and lifeboats were sent, alongside the Tarbert Coastguard Rescue Team and Islay’s lifeboat. Police Scotland and the Scottish Ambulance Service were also sent. 

But the surfer also went back in and, with the help of a throwing line, was able to reach David and his daughter, and escort them back to safety. 

“My instinct was just to grab the surfboard and go back in,” David explained, “There were a few expletives shared, I can only describe it as stress at the highest level – I thought I was watching my uncle die.” 

David said that authorities arrived just five minutes later, as the rescue attempt got under way. 

Meanwhile Gordon believes he was still conscious and alert in the water at that time, as he saw the emergency lights start to arrive in the car park. 

“I was definitely scared and panicked and I knew I was in trouble,” he said, “But I was also determined to survive. It had been hard, the water was really rough at the start but then it calmed down and I was able to float on my back. 

“I don’t know how long I was in the water but it felt like a really long time. I remember about six seagulls settled next to me which was strange. But as time went on, I started to get a bit more resigned to the thought ‘well this is it’.  

“And then I saw the lights of the emergency vehicles in the car park and it gave me renewed hope. I knew I needed to hold on. 

“But that’s still the last thing I can remember.” 

Gordon was picked up by Campbeltown’s inshore lifeboat and, with no pulse, CPR was immediately started. He was passed into the care of the waiting Coastguard Rescue Teams who continued chest compressions before the Coastguard Helicopter from Prestwick arrived with a paramedic onboard. 

A defibrillator was used to restart his heart before he was taken to hospital – and put in a medically induced coma to allow his body to recover from the extreme experience. 

David remembers. 

“It gave me such hope to see the lifeboat arrive having found him, even though I could see CPR being carried out, so I knew he wasn’t breathing,” he said. 

“I saw them bring the defibrillator on to the beach as well. But then the teams came to put a heat blanket on me and were distracting me and my daughter by running through their checks. She was hysterical, it was so upsetting. 

“We were both hypothermic as well – my body temperature was only 35C (37C is the norm). But, then they came over to give us the best news; they told us Gordon was breathing and was off to hospital in the helicopter.” 

David and his daughter were sent to hospital in a land ambulance and were informed of Gordon’s condition on arrival. 

David continued: “I think the adrenaline only started to wear off in the ambulance, as the scale of what had just happened started to really dawn on me. 

“The first 24/48 hours were really hairy, he nearly didn’t pull through several times – all we could do was hope for the best. But we were also all fearing for the worst. 

“It was the scariest moment of our lives.” 

So would the family return to a beach for future holidays? 

Both David and Gordon confirmed that they would, as it has not dimmed their enthusiasm for the beauty of the coast, but it has opened their eyes to the risks. 

In particular, the risk of rip currents. 

“It’s hard to think back to, even though it worked out well, the memories are very painful for me,” David said. “But it’s also taught me about the danger of the coast. 

“I’ve been to that beach so many times but somehow didn’t know. I do now and I am very careful about checking safety advice before I go.” 

Gordon agreed: “I would go back but I have learned to be a lot more observant of local signs, if there is a sign on the beach, read it and always pay attention at the coast. 

“Because even when you do everything right, it can still go wrong.” 

But disaster was averted that day by the lifesaving medical care of HM Coastguard and RNLI teams. 

Teams were able to get Gordon’s heart beating once more. 

As he returns to the scene of his near fatal experience, following a long period of recovery, he and David recalled the ‘scariest moment’ of their lives. But also, the day Gordon lived.

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