Woman Saved by Lifeboat Crew Returns Almost Six Decades On

(This article, written by Bex Bastable, appeared in The Chichester Observer on the 7th August 2014)

A woman whose life was saved by the Selsey lifeboat crew when she was 11, visited them on her 70th birthday.

Nicki Constant, 70, from Reigate, visited Selsey lifeboat station with her son Giles, daughter Erica, son-in-law Ali and grandchildren Eloise, four, and Isla, two. The family were shown around the boathouse, before presenting the Selsey RNLI with a cheque.

"I might not have been here except for thanks to you," she told the lifeboat crew.

On July 29th 1956 her family were on a yacht which was caught in the hurricane at sea, on what is down on RNLI records as the busiest day since records began. The English Channel was hit by a hurricane and Nicki was one of eighteen people saved that day by the Selsey Lifeboat crew alone.

Nicki met one of the surviving crew members, George Woodland, on her visit, and the son of coxswain Douglas Grant, who was awarded a silver medal for gallantry following the rescue.

"I was 11, it was just before my 12th birthday," said Nicki. "We had been in France for a family holiday. We never went on family holidays as my mum was a really bad sailor. My dad and I used to go sailing. "We had sailed all along the Normandy coast. When we were leaving, we sent through a message to get the weather forecast. They said there would be gale force five to six, winds building to seven or eight, but we should have been home by then. "Halfway across the Channel this massive hurricane came swooping in and took everything with it."

The family were on a boat called the 'Maaslust', with another family and their baby."The baby, who was 22 months, and myself, we were put down below," said Nicki. She recalled how a mattress was put up, keeping them within the first tier of bunk beds, as the adults battled the storm. "We were behind the mattress, bouncing around for god knows how many hours," she said. "We really thought we’d had it. We thought we weren’t coming back."

At the time, the Selsey RNLI were on their way out to sea. There were reports of people praying as the lifeboats were launched, as conditions were so bad.

"The lifeboat came, and they happened to see us," said Nicki. "My dad sent them away, he said we were fine, go and get the others and come back for us." So they did, and in the meantime the crew had rescued the survivors from another boat, 'Bloodhound', and went back to the 'Maaslust'.

"When they did, he produced the children from down below and they went mad," said Nicki.

There were complications in the rescue, with horrendous conditions, the 'Maaslust' rolling over and lines getting tangled. Referring to the boat, RNLI records from 1956 recall: "She was surrounded by rocks and the seas were steep and violent. There was so much spray in the air that there was barely any visibility." But eventually every passenger of the yacht was saved.

"The crew were all with their arms out," Nicki said. "Somebody grabbed my arms. They flung me like a fish over their heads. It was scary. It is still very vivid."

The survivors from the two yachts, and another, the 'Coima', were taken to Portsmouth. As well as the coxswain, Mr Grant, receiving a medal, the crew members were thanked on a vellum presented to them.

As a long-time supporter of the RNLI, Nicki and her husband had been involved with fundraising for the Shoreham RNLI, but Nicki wanted to visit and support the Selsey station because of her links with it. Colvin Rae, branch chairman of the Selsey RNLI, was thrilled with Nicki’s 'significant' donation, and said it would go towards the station’s new lifeboat.

The crew on July 29th, 1956, was: Douglas Grant, Len Lawrence, H Lawrence, J Haslett, A Fullick, Jack Bryon, George Woodland and Ken Maidment.

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