Fatal hovercraft accident was an unenviable first

The News of Monday March 6, 1972 reports the hovercraft tragedy that had occurred over the weekend
The News of Monday March 6, 1972 reports the hovercraft tragedy that had occurred over the weekend
The telegram received by William Halls mother  still upsetting to read 78 years on.

NOSTALGIA WITH BOB HIND: Curse of the telegram: Dear Mrs Hall – your son is dead

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On Monday March 6, 1972, The News reported that five people had died in the world’s first fatal accident involving a commercially-operated hovercraft.

The Ryde to Portsmouth SRN-6 overturned in a gale just 400 yards off Southsea beach.

However, a million-to-one chance saved the lives of 22 others who were rescued from the sea or the upturned hull of the cross-Solent craft.

Officer-in-chief of the Eastney Auxiliary Coastguard Station, John Andrews, just happened to be in his car in a seafront car park when he saw the hovercraft flip over.

It had happened in the afternoon of Saturday, March 4, 1972, but two days later was the first opportunity The News had to report the accident.

Mr Andrews said: ‘I immediately radioed for all assistance, the helicopters from RAF Thorney Island, lifeboats and inshore rescue craft.

‘There was a strong tide ebbing across the Hamilton Banks and it was a freak of tide, wave and wind that capsized her.

‘She tilted half down and then went over.

‘In all the years I have been here I have never seen such a freak of conditions,’ he added.

For the survivors waiting on the upturned hull, Mr Andrews’s instant message meant the difference between life and death.

The News reported that hundreds of onlookers who had gathered around the Hovertravel terminal at Clarence Pier, realised the full horror of the tragedy when a woman’s body was winched out of the sea by helicopter and carried over the heads of the crowd on the beach to be landed near a waiting ambulance on Southsea Common.

Two other bodies were then brought ashore by pilot boat. ‘Several people meeting friends and relations on the hovercraft waited in an agony of suspense to see if they too would be among the dead,’ The News reported.

Those that died were two from Portsmouth, one from Rogate, West Sussex, and a husband and wife from Surrey.

Regular hovercraft traveller Hugh Lake, 29, from Westbourne, near Emsworth, was on board.

He told the paper: ‘It happened so quickly. We were approaching the beach at Southsea and were just passing the approach channel to the harbour.

‘A big sea was running straight down the Solent and the wind was making the waves steep.

‘All I can think of is that a couple of waves broke over the port side and another wave lifted the craft.

‘She went up on one side and then went over. I can’t remember any shouting or noise at all.’