Last surviving hero of Princess Victoria maritime disaster gives vivid account of tragedy

On the anniversary of the maritime disaster, the last surviving hero of that day gives David O'Dornan a vivid account of what happened

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Ireland's Saturday Night coverage

Ireland's Saturday Night coverage

Ireland's Saturday Night coverage

On this day 67 years ago Larne man Mervyn McKay was first to react to a Mayday call that rang out as his boat took shelter in Bangor Bay in what became known as the 'Great Storm'. Hours later after his ship battled fierce gales across the Irish Sea he and the crew of the Pass of Drumochter would eventually arrive upon the wreckage of the troubled ship, the MV Princess Victoria, which sank off the Co Down coast.

Her loss claimed 133 lives, the biggest maritime disaster since the Second World War, but the only saving grace amidst the unthinkable tragedy was that the death toll would have been greater but for the heroics of Mervyn and his crewmates.

Not that he would consider himself a hero. In fact, so scarred was he by the horrors he witnessed in those violent waters that he did not talk about it for 25 years.

Mervyn is now 88 years old and believes he is the only person still alive involved in the events that unfolded that fateful day. At 2.40pm today Mervyn will stand alone as the last survivor to pay his respects at the memorial in Larne. The council have a ceremony earlier in the day each year at 11am, but Mervyn holds his own at that later time, and every year since the tragedy he has put a wreath in the sea no matter where in the world he is on the day, in tribute to those who lost their lives and couldn't be saved.

He was just 20 years old on the day of the disaster yet not without experience, having been at sea since the age of 13, but it was a twist of fate that he was even there at all as he was not an original member of the crew.

Formerly a wine boat that travelled up and down the Danube, the Pass of Drumochter was one of a fleet bought by a Scottish firm and converted into an oil tanker. In January 1953 she was short of one crew member to enable her to sail.

Mervyn was waiting until February to go for a second officer's qualification, but in the wake of Christmas and being offered the opportunity of 10 days' work, he accepted an approach to come aboard as a relief crew member.

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Larne man Mervyn McKay (88), the last surviving crew member of the Pass of Drumochter, which came to the aid of Princess Victoria in 1953

Larne man Mervyn McKay (88), the last surviving crew member of the Pass of Drumochter, which came to the aid of Princess Victoria in 1953

Larne man Mervyn McKay (88), the last surviving crew member of the Pass of Drumochter, which came to the aid of Princess Victoria in 1953

"I just joined her, didn't know anybody on board," he says. "I went and did my watch, got to know the first names of some of the guys that were working. I probably would have done the whole trip of 10 days never getting the full names of anybody, but I knew where some of them were from.

"We left Belfast - Sydenham - and went down the river. I was not on the wheel, I was down on the deck waiting because at eight o'clock I was on watch.

"My position was the 'farmer' - the farmer doesn't steer the ship on that watch, you look out. You go up the mast, bridge or bow, the skipper decides where you go.

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Larne man Mervyn McKay as a young seaman in the 1950s

Larne man Mervyn McKay as a young seaman in the 1950s

Larne man Mervyn McKay as a young seaman in the 1950s

"It would be on the bridge so he can keep contact with you. On a wee ship like that, you can't shout loud enough, there were no Tannoys or phones.

"We were coming into Bangor Bay and that's where I took over as farmer up on the bridge. He said: 'Stand your watch up here, we're going down for breakfast'.

"There was nothing happened up to that, nothing unusual, we were lying anchored in Bangor Bay. They went down for breakfast and I'm wandering up and down the bridge keeping an eye out that another ship isn't dragging anchor and that nothing isn't coming too close to us or anchoring too close to us, or then I'd want assistance to get them out or move our ship."

But the innocuous start to his stint on duty was the calm before the storm.

Mervyn recalls: "The radio starts blaring out: 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday'. I ran into the radio room. 'This is Port Patrick, the Princess Victoria is lying off Corsewall Point, she's lost her power and she's unable to move, we need ships to standby for her. Get some help'.

"I had already blown the horn for the guys to get up. They came running up, they thought something was coming to hit us. I turned up the Mayday call full blast and the skipper said: 'Right, okay, Mervyn you're on the wheel, get the engines started as soon as possible, get the pump men to pump the waters into her to sink her to get ballast.

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A survivor from the Princess Victoria is helped ashore

A survivor from the Princess Victoria is helped ashore

A survivor from the Princess Victoria is helped ashore

"At the same time we cast off and were heading towards Black Head towards the lighthouse cutting across that way, but to get the most out of it and pump the most water into the ship, we took that direction to gather water all the time then up the side of Whitehead towards Black Head.

"When we hit Black Head, all hell broke loose - there were waves that you wouldn't believe. I'm going to tell you they were 70-foot waves and you wouldn't even have an idea of what that looks like.

"But when you're standing at the wheel of a ship and a 70-foot wave hits you, you're looking at the bottom of the wave and the top of the wave is away up in the sky, that's what you're looking up at, as high as you can see and sometimes higher than you can see up in the monkey island (the ship's highest most accessible point).

"And you're sure that's going to fall down on you, that's almost certain. The second mate, he comes over and he's looking at it and he puts his hand on the wheel and I jumped behind the wheel as soon as it hit, we went up into her and then we we broke through it and then the next wave was coming. And we did that all day long."

Almost six hours later the Pass of Drumochter fought its way to the stricken vessel and was helped by an unsung hero of the rescue attempt, a ship called the Orchy.

Mervyn says: "Remember we're going everywhere else as well, we were even turning broadside on to the waves, that's a tricky, tricky operation. She could overcome you and turn you right over the body, if she breaches you.

"It was nearly nine o'clock from Black Head when we got away into the sea and it was 20 minutes to three in the afternoon before we spotted wreckage.

"We already knew then that the Royal Navy was there but we couldn't contact her because we had RT (radio telephone) and the only other ship that had RT was a ship called the Orchy.

"She was running light ship with ballast, and was so high in the water it was criminal to have her out in that. The sides were so far up he couldn't do a darn thing about it, but she kept beside us because it gave them a bigger target to find the area that we were in having two ships there.

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John McKnight, one of the Princess Victoria survivors

John McKnight, one of the Princess Victoria survivors

John McKnight, one of the Princess Victoria survivors

"She had RT and could tell what the Morse Code is coming from everywhere, including Port Patrick. And she was keeping us in touch with what was going on elsewhere. There's ships looking for us and their captain said: 'We're trying to stand fast beside you as near as we can but we're having terrible trouble balancing the ship'."

Mervyn and crewmate Pat Black, who passed away three years ago, spotted a lifeboat from the Princess Victoria and worked together to bring it to safety through the merciless and deadly storm.

As their ship came upon the wreckage, the captain instructed Mervyn to fire off rockets, but they were so soaked he was unable to do so, just before the rescue bid began in earnest.

He says: "Mostly I was under water but I tied myself a rope and hung in there to get to the rail okay, but I was being lifted up and thrown down like you wouldn't believe. I could see the lifeboat away in the distance. We had to try and get a line to it and I went through the accommodation to the stern on my own and I lifted one of the lines out and I started throwing the line towards the lifeboat.

"I was throwing the line 100 times, I'm not kidding you. And it was getting tangled up on the deck above me where our lifeboats were. I threw the line and, honest to God, that line was not thrown in the right direction."

Then one lucky charge of the howling wind sent it looping over the 50-foot waves in the right direction and it landed on the lifeboat, a stroke of fortune that would spare lives - 35 were rescued in all.

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The Princess Victoria

The Princess Victoria

The Princess Victoria

He explains: "It was thrown up in the air, because the minute it left my hand it just took off and went straight up in the air. I was watching it and was mesmerised by it and it went up and out over the stern in the wrong direction and then, all of a sudden, the wind whipped it and it fell across the boat. My thoughts at that time was God done that. You couldn't describe what those waves were like as they were crashing - it was like hell on Earth."

Mervyn continues: "Once the rescue started we were down on the deck. That was in the centre of the storm before you hit the next bit. It takes a long time to get to the centre but then it's crowding up and there are 40 or 50-foot waves, that was what we were getting when the lifeboat came.

"I threw the rope to the lifeboat. There wasn't a hope in hell of getting one to them but the line, every time I threw it, it landed behind me. I threw it up in the air and it went this way, that way, any way at all.

"Once it went up in the air and I watched it coming down ready to pull it in, it went on and it went over the lifeboat and by the hand of God, really. It gave me a line then and I pulled that in and the captain then sent off for more help.

"Gradually they sent me up one guy, Pat Black, and then they sent me up Hugo Seymour. I didn't know any of their names, I was only a relief guy on there. I shouldn't have even been there, and I wish I hadn't have been.

"We got the lifeboat alongside of us, but they were all standing in the boat like zombies. Take my word for it, they were like zombies. We had to waken them up to get somebody to help John McKnight.

"John tried to jump aboard our ship and was hanging on to the guard rail. When the ship goes into port there's a big rail that is wooden with a steel face on it, it's like a big bumper called the belt.

"And I went down and went through and got the hold of his wrists to pull him up because he couldn't let go with his hands and there was blood all over, skin and blood.

"And remember we're in a gale and screeching wind at the same time, and the sea's still rising up and down leaving him high and dry 20 or 30 feet off the water and I'm holding him.

"And the lifeboat is coming and I can't drop him and I can't hold on to him, and I can't drop him because the lifeboat is in the way and he'd be crushed.

"And I held on to him, and I said: 'Just a minute!' The boat, she was moving and the water hitting her and moving the lifeboat backwards on the way and I said 'now' and I dropped him and then we shouted at them to try and waken them up, he was in the water.

"I went up to make a jump on to the lifeboat when she came up again and the captain was standing up in the poop deck, and he shouted at me: 'Don't jump on to that lifeboat'.

"And he did it at the very second I needed to do the jump. You only get one second to do it if you're going to do it safely in a sea like that."

The Pass of Dromochter stayed with the survivors until the RNLI lifeboat from Donaghadee came to take over, then they stayed searching the waters for more signs of life until 3am the next morning.

Later, before finding his way back home to live in Larne, Mervyn lived an eventful life in Manchester for 25 years working in the crane industry, which saw him building a stand at Manchester United's Old Trafford for the legendary Sir Matt Busby, who offered him a season ticket as thanks for a job well done.

He was also offered - and turned down - employment by a certain Joseph C Bamford, the inventor of the JCB, who had been impressed by his knowledge of cranes and has sought his advice on how they were made.

But throughout that time Mervyn consigned the horrors of the Princess Victoria disaster to the back of his mind and did not speak about it until he was later encouraged not to keep it bottled up.

He adds: "After it happened we went to Ellesmere Port and the captain told us people are coming to talk, but I didn't want to talk. It was 25 years before I would talk about it. Before that I lived a whole life without saying a word about it, as did the rest of them."

Belfast Telegraph