Nick Conolly is an “old salt” who’s big on personality — and sentiment.

He regards the Royal New Zealand Navy as “home” even though he left it 20 years ago.

“The Navy gave me everything, gave me direction. It shaped me and made me a good human being,” he said.

“Once you are in the Navy family you never leave it.”

And that family has come through for the 66-year-old, who’s now struggling with serious health issues.

Seven Sharp was with an emotional Nick when he returned to the Devonport Naval Base for one last time at sea.

“My heart’s just pounding,” he said, while being pushed in a wheelchair along the pier with Navy vessels berthed on either side.

“Grey is my favourite colour. Oh yes, there have been many a time on these things [military vessels].”

The purpose of his visit was to soak up some “good old Navy mateship” and to pay tribute to the person responsible for one of his most treasured career highlights — the late Queen Elizabeth II.

‘Memories you just can’t lose’

During the 1986 Royal Visit to New Zealand, Conolly was one of seven sailors posted to the Royal Yacht Britannia. But more than that, he was handpicked by the Queen to transfer from the “Navy side of the yacht to the royal side” for the duration of her visit.

“I got selected, I don’t know how but I got selected,” he shared.

“The Admiral called me in. I thought I had done something wrong and he said ‘The Queen was taken by you and wants you to be part of her staff’.

“I was just blown away. Those sorts of memories you just can’t lose, they are there for life.”

Conolly described Her Majesty as highly personable and interested in him as an individual.

“She was incredibly sincere; asking about my son and daughter and just chatting freely.”

He recalled her as a hard worker, tending to piles of paperwork at the end of long days of official functions and walkabouts.

Thirty-six years later when the Queen died, Conolly was bed-bound with myriad of medical conditions, including the blood clotting disorder thrombosis which he has been told will eventually claim him.

“I was too sick to attend any of the memorial services for Queen Elizabeth, but I have always wanted to give her my farewell.”

And that he’s now done, joining reservists and Navy cadets on a familiarisation trip on the HMNZS Manawanui on Auckland Harbour.

‘The Navy will never leave me’

The dive and hydrographic survey vessel was brought to a stop off North Head as Conolly and the ship’s commander, Yvonne Gray, dropped red roses into the sea.

“For a lady who touched my heart, she allowed me into her quarters, into her place of work. I saw how hard she worked and how much she loved her Commonwealth, her country and her people.

“Sleep well in heaven, amen.”

As the flowers floated along the flank of the Manawanui and slowly separated, Conolly offered that he felt content and complete.

“The Navy will never leave me, just like the Queen.

“I’m so grateful, so thankful…

“I’ll take that with me, eternity.”

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