"If you’re a seafarer, you believe in miracles.”

Nine long hours

Sixty years on from one of the most eventful days of his career as a radio officer in the Merchant Navy, Stan McNally recalls how his vigilance saved the life of a colleague who went overboard in the Pacific Ocean and survived nine hours at sea.

Stan McNally on watch in the radio room
Stan McNally on watch in the radio room

Stan, from the Wirral, will never forget the day of his friend Douglas Wardrop’s dramatic ordeal. “We were bound for Japan with a cargo of soya beans on the British Monarch,” said Stan. “Four days out from Panama, it was a beautiful morning and I was enjoying my breakfast. Dougie usually had his at the same time but there was no sign of him, I searched the vessel but couldn’t find him.”

Stan decided to check the engine room, before asking second engineer, Victoria Drummond – Britain’s first female marine engineer – if she had seen the missing second officer, she hadn’t.

“Eventually, I had to tell the Captain that Douglas was missing. He called the crew together and we all searched the vessel, we even went through the soya beans.”

The last reported sighting of Douglas was four am, when he handed over watch duties to the mate.

“It was now nine am, five hours in shark and barracuda infested waters – some hope for Doug, but if you’re a seafarer, you believe in miracles.”

The British Monarch steamed back along their original track, but at midday, there had still been no sighting of Douglas.

“The mate and Captain thought the wind and current might have altered our course slightly so we altered six degrees to starboard and steamed on for an hour. Suddenly the third mate shouted ‘man swimming on the starboard side’ – you could see a little hand waving about in the water.

“Had the Captain and mate not altered the course what a different story it might have been.”

Douglas climbing on board the British Monarch after nine hours adrift
Douglas climbing on board the British Monarch after nine hours adrift

A boat went out to rescue Douglas and when it returned to the British Monarch, Douglas managed to climb up the ladder on board.

“As soon as he hit the deck he was out for the count,” added Stan.

Douglas was treated for shock in the vessel’s hospital, “He was given a hot water bottle but as soon as he felt it he nearly knocked the Captain out as he thought it was a Portuguese man-o’-war stinging him,” said Stan.

“We never gave up hope and were euphoric to have him back.”

Finding Douglas was the beginning of a lot of work for Stan.

“There were telegrams galore, the whole world wanted to know what had happened!

“We let the vessel’s owners know that not only had we lost the second officer but also found him! Vessels we had alerted over his disappearance were delighted to hear he was safe and newspapers wanted to hear Dougie’s story.”

Douglas stayed on the British Monarch for a further year.

In 1958, while docked in New Zealand, he and Stan witnessed tragedy.

Stan said, “A couple of apprentices were at the beach where they saw some women drowning. They rushed into try and save them. The women were saved but one of the apprentices couldn’t swim and drowned in five minutes. We sent his kitbag home and buried him in New Zealand, it was terrible.”

In 2008, fifty years after the accident, Stan visited the young apprentice’s grave, “He was an absolute hero.”

As for Douglas, he left seafaring to join the Prudential in Kent. Stan visited him a decade later and tried to reconnect with him in later life only to find out that Douglas had sadly passed away.

Stan spent seven years at sea before coming ashore to continue working for the Marconi Company, where he remained until retiring in 1998. He later invented the Stanguard, a device to improve maritime safety.

One of Stan’s friends saw Douglas’s survival story reprinted in Sailors’ Society’s Chart and Compass magazine last year. Stan decided to get in touch with the maritime charity to tell his side of the story.

“I was connected to the sea for 45 years and was on ships all of my life, fixing radars and echo sounders. It’s in my blood.”