One dark night towards the end of September 1977 along with two friends I answered cries of distress coming from a yacht moored in Easdale Sound. We commandeered the only boat available in the harbour, the old ferry, an over-sized rowing boat with a seagull outboard, and set out on the short distance to the yacht to render assistance. A blustering southerly wind had got up and the sea was choppy but we were unperturbed.
Dougie and I had worked every summer since we were 11 years old as salmon fishermen and were accomplished boatmen. Sandra, Dougie's fiancée, came with us, as unconcerned and confident in our abilities as we were. Such confidence is the preserve of 19 year olds.
Halfway to the yacht our engine cut out. The wind suddenly freshened and the waves rose but still we were unconcerned as we searched for the rowlocks in the dark. The boat drifted northwards. Realising that soon we would lose the comparative shelter of the Sound we gave up trying to find the rowlocks and began instead to lash the oars with rope as makeshift rowlocks. Before we could accomplish this it became apparent that we were going to drift onto the rocks at the north end of the Sound. I unlashed my oar to fend the boat off, bracing the heavy oar against the rock, putting my weight into it. Just at that moment a huge wave materialised out of the darkness and washed my two companions out of the boat.
The backwash from the wave pulled the boat off the rocks. I glimpsed two faces far below me in the gulf opening up between the sea and the base of the rocks as the wave sucked back. The boat was swamped and I could do nothing for them. Another large wave swept over the boat. I lost the oar and my balance and fell to my knees clutching a thwart. The gunwales of the boat were sunk to the waterline. Each successive wave washed over the boat and I was able to breathe only between waves. I had a dim awareness of the boat drifting further out to sea and of the waves getting bigger.
Time passed and I got cold and weak. At some point I managed to grab a life hoop and pulled it over one shoulder like a bandolier. My fingers were laced together under the thwart. I breathed between enormous waves washing violently over me. Each one threatened to tear me out of the boat. At one point I saw the lights of Oban far to the north and became aware that I was drifting on a north-westerly course. Consciousness began to fade and only a tiny voice from somewhere inside urged me to hang on.
Eventually, the dark bulk of the island of Insh loomed out of the darkness. Huge waves crashed ashore. The boat was caught up by one of these and rolled over. I half swam and was half washed ashore on a small rock just off the island. I scrambled up the rock finding a depression on top and fell into it. Looking back towards the boat I saw it smashed to kindling in minutes before I lost consciousness.
When I regained consciousness I saw parachute flares in the sky. I was sure my companions were lost and that no one would yet have missed us. I imagined that some other poor soul had got into trouble. Later I found out that against all odds my friends had got safely ashore and raised the alarm. The coastguard mobilised the Oban lifeboat and a local fishing boat, the Bathsheba. The lifeboat turned back in atrocious conditions just south of Kerrera. The crew were wise because the storm had veered into the west and conditions were impossible.
The brave little Bathsheba battled out to Insh. I watched their lights approach, sure they were going to founder in the enormous seas. The coastguard and the crew of the Bathsheba, with the benefit of local knowledge, calculated that I would have drifted towards Insh and restricted their search to this area. The fishing boat searched the coast of the two-mile-long island again and again, sweeping it with their searchlight. Eventually they saw me. The Sea-King from RAF Leuchars couldn't launch for several hours because the winds were too high. They winched me off my rock at 9am the next morning.
I was cold but unharmed and in no doubt that I owed my life to the courage of the crew of the fishing boat, to their local knowledge and that of Oban coastguard. I became firm friends with Michael Caine, the skipper of the fishing boat. Sadly he and his crewman died a few years later when his boat sank a few miles west of Easdale. A pall hung over our community for many weeks afterwards.
On the banks of the Thames there seems to be little appreciation of the work done by our coastguard and search and rescue services. Local knowledge and the connection with the sea going community are vital if lives are to be saved. No amount of computers or clever technology can replace this. Some years ago we lost the Oban coastguard station and are dependent now on Clyde coastguard. In a vicious cost-cutting exercise several coastguard stations are proposed for closure along with cuts to RAF search and rescue services. We who live on Scotland's coastline will count the cost of this in lives lost at sea.
This article was first published in SR in 2011