THE mother of one of two young Bettyhill girls who were swept out to sea as they surfed at a north coast beach, has publicly thanked the fisherman who went to their rescue.
Caroline Watson said it had been a terrifying experience which could easily have ended in tragedy had it not been for the quick actions of shellfish fisherman Jamie Magee.
She said: “It is awful to think what the outcome could have been if help hadn’t been so close at hand.”
Mrs Watson, a United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) police officer at Dounreay, also thanked members of the public at Farr Beach who raised the alarm.
The drama happened last Friday afternoon as Eve Watson (8) and Fearn Hayley (10) – who both attend Farr Primary School – were using lightweight floats, known as boogie boards, on Farr Beach, watched by Fearn’s mother, Rhona.
But as a light, off shore wind blew up and with the tide ebbing, conditions on the beach took a dangerous turn and the two youngsters found themselves pulled inexorably out to the open sea and unable to paddle back towards the shore.
A frantic Mrs Hayley waded in as deeply as she could but was unable to reach the by now deeply distressed girls whose screaming could be heard onshore.
Meanwhile an onlooker on the beach raised the alarm and the local coastguard, ambulance unit and Thurso RNLI were called out.
Lobster fisherman and coastguard Jamie Magee, who was delivering crabs to a local household at the time, was alerted to the ongoing situation by the sight of an ambulance parked at the start of a track to Port Swingo (a narrow cleft in the rocks on the west side of the beach).
He was told about the girls’ plight by paramedic Ian Burns.
Mr Magee said: “I carried on down to Port Swingo as fast as I could and spotted the girls in the sea about 350 yards away heading towards Glais Geo (rock stacks) on the other side of the bay. I could hear them screaming and see their heads sticking out of the water.”
Fortunately Mr Magee’s 13ft Pioneer dinghy was moored at Port Swingo with its outboard motor fuelled up and ready to go.
He told the Northern Times: “I ran the tender into the water as fast as I could and, as I turned it to head out in the bay, I was throwing fish boxes out on to the rocks. I must have looked like a madman!”
It took Mr Magee around 15 minutes to catch up with the girls and haul them on board.
He said: “Fearn, who was wearing a wet suit, was still screaming but Eve, who was dressed in a swimming costume was quiet and when I pulled her aboard, it was clear that she was very, very cold.”
It later transpired that the zip on Eve’s wet suit had broken earlier that day and she had opted to wear just her swimsuit.
Mr Magee took the girls back to Farr beach where paramedics Mr Burns and Murdo Gordon were waiting with blankets.
Mrs Watson was alerted to the incident by her next door neighbour, Susan Malone.
She said: “Susan from the Post Office next door knocked on our door and asked if my husband and I could go to Farr Beach to assist with two youngsters who had been pulled out to sea. She did not know that one of them was our daughter. I knew Eve had gone there a short time earlier with Fearn and her mum.
“We immediately rushed to the beach but could not see any sign of the girls. Someone on the beach told us that a boat had picked them both up. We then went to the ambulance where they were being checked over and warmed up.
“It was a terrifying time that could have ended in tragedy had it not been for the quick actions of the people on the beach in calling for help and Jamie spotting the ambulance and launching his boat.
“We are also extremely grateful to both the Coastguard and RNLI for their response.”
Farr Beach is widely regarded as a safe beach with a gently shelving bottom allowing paddlers to wade out some distances.
But locals warn against entering the water from the west side because of a “whirlpool” effect there. It is thought the girls were more towards the middle of the beach.