“MAYDAY mayday, mayday mayday.”

On the morning of January 21, 1980, the Athina B was in trouble.

The Greek merchant ship was supposed to be carrying 3,000 tonnes of pumice to Shoreham.

But after a voyage from the Azores fraught with technical problems, the boat’s engines had finally given up the ghost outside the port town.

With ferocious waves and gale force winds, the ship’s captain made a mayday call. A lifeboat launched to rescue the 25 people onboard.

“We first caught sight of the Athina B virtually grounding her stern off Southwick beach in very rough seas,” RNLI coxswain Ken Voice later wrote for website My Brighton and Hove.

“My immediate thought was ‘How the hell am I going to be able to hold the lifeboat alongside long enough for the lifeboat crew to grab hold of the vessel’s crew?’”

Pulling up alongside the ship, the lifeboat crew rescued the captain’s wife, two children, and a girl suffering from hypothermia before heading back to shore.

“The rescued people were very wet and cold,” Mr Voice wrote.

After rescuing another 11 people from Athina B, the ship’s captain regained control of the engine and began to pull away from the coastline.

But the boat’s breakaway bid failed. By 9pm it was in danger of beaching again.

This time, the ship could not fight the choppy seas as it barrelled towards Brighton.

Twice again lifeboats were sent to rescue the remainder of the crew in total darkness as desperate seamen threw their suitcases overboard.

“It seems a hell of a long time ago now,” Mr Voice wrote.

“Many people don’t realise there were lifeboat crewmen injured aboard the Newhaven lifeboat that night.

“Suffice to say we were glad when it was all over and no lives were lost.”

The Athina B eventually ran aground next to Brighton Palace Pier late at night.

Though a merchant ship beaching next to a city’s biggest attraction is a pretty rare event by most measures, there was no initial frenzy over the Athina B.

Only one man captured the stranding on camera that night, a lucky amateur named Paul Brown.

“We didn’t hear about the Athina B until the next morning,” said John Fox, a professional photographer who freelanced for The Argus.

“We knew police officers, fire officers, and ambulance workers because we had been wedding photographers for a lot of their weddings.

“Usually we’d get a call from one of them whenever anything happened.”

When Mr Fox ventured to the seafront the next day from his camera shop in Hove, word had spread quickly.

“Every man and his dog was down there, all the press and TV crews,” he said.

“I took a lot of pictures and tried to sell them to the nationals but nobody was interested.”

So the photographer and his partner Phil Barnes decided they would go down to the Athina B at night to get unique interests and pique the interest of the national press.

“At night the police cordoned it off to stop people getting up to mischief,” Mr Fox said.

“We chatted to the officers on the scene and they knew me anyway and they let us in.

“Sometimes things worked out like that, sometimes not.

“The wind was still blowing a gale and we knew it was going to buffer the camera.

“So we got down on our knees and started digging in the sand like dogs so we could bury the tripod.”

The job was painstaking as one photographer kept an eye on the camera while the other walked the length of the ship with a flash gun to light the Athina B up.

Taking eight in black and white and eight in colour, Mr Fox and Mr Barnes ran back to the shop and got the photos developed.

But still the press was not interested.

“They said ‘It’s yesterday’s news mate’,” said Mr Fox.

“So we decided on a big version of it mounted on the wall in the shop.

“Not only did it look really nice, but we sold hundreds of them.

“Every customer who came in wanted to buy it.”

With the Athina B a write-off, the ship was left to rust on the seafront for a month until it could be tugged out to sea on a spring high tide.

A mobile crane was even used to remove the ship’s bounty of pumice in a bid to quell looters.

But eyesore or not, the Athina B provided a welcome boost for seafront traders in what was usually low season.

“Every day the place was absolutely rammed with visitors,” said Mr Fox.

“It had a colossal increase in visitor numbers in Brighton. All the seaside shops cashed in on it.”

The Volk’s Railway, usually closed in the winter months, reopened to serve this new crowd of ship-spotting punters.

On February 21, exactly a month since the Athina B’s beaching, the tide swelled and the ship was towed back out to sea.

Eventually it was scrapped in Rainham, Kent.

But its anchor remains on the Brighton promenade as a reminder of the previously unthinkable event.

Then again, perhaps some seafront traders would welcome a beaching tomorrow if it meant a boost in sales.