A former officer in the Special Boat Squadron, Mr Ashdown said "I've sailed on a great number of oceans in my life. This has been the greatest and the best. I have loved every minute of it, but there are other seas I want to sail on before this thing is finished. I don't want to be an MP at 65. Sorry, but I don't want to do it."
He told them he had done all the things he had set out to do for the party. "And I think it will be good for the party to have a new leader in the summer with new energy and new ideas."
The news was met with both sadness and the suppressed excitement of those relishing the coming leadership contest.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank spoke about the "affection and fondness" for Mr Ashdown. Paul Tyler said the best tribute to Mr Ashdown would be the way MPs conducted themselves over the next few months. After 15 minutes they banged their desks in appreciation and he left with jacket over his shoulder, looking relaxed.
Later, he said: "I have always wanted to go when people said, `Why?' rather than `Why not?'". But his wife, Jane, waiting patiently in the leader's room, was the most relieved. "We never see each other. Weekends belong to the party as well as the week."
Some present were already planning their next moves for the leadership. Simon Hughes rushed out, smiling.
"The Greater London Authority Bill calls..." he said, brushing aside questions about his challenge.