It was September 15th 1978, I was 18 and waiting with my elder Brother at Boulogne Hoverport to return to Dover England. The channel was being beaten by a heavy storm, the waves were massive and the wind was incredibly strong. The two of us looked out of the terminal for the now, very delayed arrival of the hovercraft. A distant deep rumble of engines grew louder, when out of the grey murk the Princess Anne arrived, and to this day I still remember how huge She looked. We left the departure gate and crossed the pad towards the Anne. My Brother jokingly commented on the Skipper…”Is He mad?…we’ll never make that!”. We found our seats on the starboard side just slightly forward of midway.
All engines up and running and away we go, out into the battering waves. I can remember how violent it was mid channel, and how I couldn’t wait to get across. I could see Dover through the murk. A while later we were being tossed about like a toy when suddenly, there was that strange feeling in the stomach of falling from a height, then “Bang!” A huge impact with the waves followed by very loud structural creaking, we’d actually dropped into a deep swell, The Anne suddenly listed heavily to starboard. A sickening feeling came over me that something was wrong. Suddenly out of the grey gloom came a massive “Crash!” and the sight of this huge mass of black waving around outside. Back it came again and again with the same violent impact with the cabin windows. It was clear the skirt was torn.
After a short while, concerned crew and engineers were in the cabin looking out and discussing the problem. I remember being really scared yet at the same time managing to find something funny when one of the engineers turned up carying a small red toolbox. The might of the sea outside and him standing ready with spanners in hand.
The Skipper came down and told us that all the passengers (around 200) from the starboard side were to be moved to the port side for safety, He then left the cabin. A Stewardess then announced for all passengers to calmly make their way forward in single file to cross the car deck to the opposite side. Just as though placed into a Hollywood movie, the passengers started to panic and yell and get totally confused until it became chaotic and frightening. My Brother made me sit back down and wait till the majority of people had gone. The last stragglers were moving toward the door. There were about ten of us left when a Stewardess told us that “It’s absolute chaos over there, so I’m going to move you down the front into first class until things calm down a little. It’ll be safer there incSunday, September 14, 2014d remain where we were if we wanted, so we did.
The skirt was visibly ripping along the side more and more, and was still smashing into the windows. The huge rivets holding the skirt sections together were cracking into the sides with a deafening crack! The engines were sounding very choked and lack of power, not good.
With all passengers now gone, the Skipper came back down with other crew for a further study of the damage. He came over to us last remaining ten and told us the severity of it.
He told us that we were currently seven miles from Dover but could not make it safely because we were heading into the wind and against the tide. He told us that we were turning around and heading back to France to make use of the wind and current to aid our return. It was very stomach churning to see us heading away from safety and off into the murk once more.
Sitting at the front allowed us to see the huge waves in full swing. The things that stood out was our total lack of speed. Engines underneath us were making a dreadful choking sounds and the props on top struggling. Looking back along the side we could clearly see that the waves were now running along the windows and the list to starboard was worsening. We were no longer flying, just drifting with wind and tide and staying afloat with what little thrust was left.
The Skipper returned once again and said to us “I can see that you are all responsible adults so I’ll tell you what’s happening. Our situation is very serious indeed, the skirt has taken serious damage and if it rips along to about this point here, we will have to abandon because it may go down. All emergency procedures have been carried out and cross channel ferries and lifeboats have been notified and sent to our aid”.
Things were now looking pretty dire, the French coast still looked miles away each time we rode over the top of a swell. As time went on huge swells would surge up the front and side windows and took longer and longer to subside. The horrible blocking ears as we went under water. We could see beside us, that ferries were tracking with us fairly close by. We were then aware that that when the tide surged over us masses of sand was coming up the window as well, meaning we were closing on land. After a while we could feel and hear scraping underneath. The beach was now in sight very clearly. The engines gave a mighty roar as though the Skipper gave it everything he had. The Anne clawed it’s way onto the beach to the edge of the waterline and the engines were shutdown. A giant sigh of relief across all of our faces, we’d made it. We arrived at Wissant after about a two hour nightmare. We were all handed a very welcome stiff brandy, free of course.
Me and my Brother returned to England later that evening on a Swift hovercraft from Calais landing at Ramsgate…The channel was like a mill pond and we crossed in about 35 minutes.
On returning home I found out that this event was covered by our local tv news and received about a ten second mention. The liner QE2 was battered and damaged by the same storm and typically made the headline topic. To this very day I find it sad that such an event has never had a mention, albeit one or two lines and even then has been written wrong. Always mentioned as getting damaged off the French coast at Wissant. Seven miles off Dover is correct and should be known. The Skipper did a marvellous job that day and I personally praise and Thank him for it. Of course not forgetting the rest of the crew.
A funny end note. When we got home, our Dad said “What have you two been up to then?”
Story from Gareth Jones (February 2010)
Passenger and eyewitness on the ‘Princess Anne’
Page updated: Sunday, September 14, 2014