Hunt for ‘hero’ Royal Navy sailor who saved Portsmouth child’s life in 1963 rescue

Shirley McGowan as a child
Shirley McGowan as a child
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SHIRLEY McGowan (née Worrall) owes her life to a mystery sailor who risked his life by leaping into the ocean and plucking her out when she was just a seven-year-old child.

Now the grandmother, who is in her early 60s, wants to find the ‘hero’ who saved her life – giving her the chance to live a rich life that has seen her have five children and five grandchildren.

Shirley McGowan

Shirley McGowan

But it could so easily have ended in tragedy when she was innocently splashing around in the waves off Whale Island, Portsmouth, with her brother in 1963, then home of the Royal Navy base HMS Excellent.  

After playing in the sea without a care in the world, events suddenly took a sinister turn as Shirley was swept out to sea – with her fearing she would die as she struggled to breathe.

Her heavily pregnant aunt, who had taken the children out for a day of fun during a warm summer’s day, could only watch on with horror while screaming for help.

And then came the dramatic moment that changed the whole course of Shirley’s life.

‘I saw my brother on the other side of the causeway and the last thing I remember is walking towards him. Next thing, all I could see was water and fish. I had been swept out with the tide,’ Shirley said.

‘After quite a few minutes of struggling, I remember someone coming near me and I must have grabbed him around the neck as he threw me off. He then grabbed me around the waist and swam with me to a boat with a couple of men on it. I assume they had been fishing. We were then rowed to shore.

‘Apparently, the man who saved me was a sailor and had dived off the bridge. My aunt was pregnant at the time and was screaming from the shore. A lady took us into her house and I remember her giving me a coat to wear home as I was soaked.’

Days after the incident, Shirley’s mum attempted to find the sailor who had rescued her. She took a bottle of whiskey down to the naval base to give to the sailor who had left the scene straight after saving the girl.

‘The sailor didn’t hang around once I was safe so we never knew his name. We don’t know if that sailor ever got the whisky either,’ she said.

Shirley, who moved to Australia when she was nine, admits she is fortunate not to have drowned – with her revealing the incident had a big effect on her throughout her life.

‘I am very lucky to be alive. I was absolutely terrified of water from then on and if any splashed me, I would just scream. I didn’t learn to swim until I came to Australia,’ she said.

‘My mum put me into the school swimming classes and they made me learn. I am still terrified in the surf at the beach and won’t go in over my hips. I have been dumped by the waves a couple of times and now prefer not to go in at all.

‘I can swim in a pool but cannot have anyone come near me like children as they tend to try and hang off me and it is absolutely terrifying for me. I just panic. My feet have to touch the ground. I don’t like watching my kids go in the surf either. I panic and want them to get closer to shore.

‘I did become a good swimmer though and competed and won races at school.’

For more than 50 years Shirley has wanted to find the sailor who saved her but has had no success tracking the man down.

‘I have been looking for this sailor for years with no luck. I just want him to know that I really do appreciate him saving me. I have five children and five grandchildren (one deceased) who wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for him and I want him to know how grateful I am. Even if I contact his family. He is a hero.’

The event has shaped who Shirley is with her keen to ‘give back’. After moving to Australia, she joined the St John’s Ambulance service as a volunteer, and currently helps with marine rescue operations on the New South Wales far north coast. She also runs a pay-it-forward page on Facebook.

‘I have done a lot of volunteer work in Australia and I think it all has to do with “giving back”. I can never give back enough,’ she said.

‘I work with people with disabilities and it is the most feel good job that I can imagine. I love helping people strive to get to their full potential.

‘I think what this sailor has done has shaped my life and I am so thankful.’

Attempts to find the sailor have been taken up by Australian television network SBS. But, like Shirley, they have been unsuccessful in their attempt to track down the man.

The Royal Navy has no internal records of a sailor being commended for heroic acts in Portsmouth, 1963.

In a further blow, the commanding officer of HMS Excellent at that time passed away a few years ago.

The Portsmouth Historical Centre has searched their records and microfilm from the time, without any joy.

Hampshire Constabulary has no records of an incident at the time, nor have they been able to locate a surviving force member who remembers the rescue.

But despite the passing of all these years Shirley still has hope she will find the sailor. ‘I’ll keep looking for him until the day I die,’ she added.

Anyone who has any information on the hero sailor should approach The News in the first instance.