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Bravery of Port Isaac volunteer lifeboat crew honoured with gallantry medals

About the author

Image of Isla Reynolds

Isla Reynolds
Newsdesk and PR Manager at Poole.

Start quote'Helmsman Damien Bolton and his two crew - Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Matthew Main - were aware of the risk they were exposing themselves to, but felt that the potential of saving a life outweighed that risk.' Michael Vlasto, RNLI Operations DirectorEnd quote

Lifeboats News Release

  • Date:
  • Author: Isla Reynolds

Three Port Isaac lifeboat crew members have been awarded RNLI Medals for Gallantry.

The volunteers, from Port Isaac Lifeboat Station, have each been awarded one of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s highest accolades for their courage, leadership and initiative in rough and dangerous sea conditions beneath the cliffs of the North Cornwall coast in April 2012.

Helmsman Damien Bolton, 31, along with crew members Nicola-Jane Bradbury, 40, and Matthew Main, 29, launched the inshore lifeboat in force 4-5 winds to rescue two people who had been swept into rough water very close to the cliffs.

The two casualties were within an arc of semi-submerged rocks and were being tumbled in the confused and breaking 3 metre waves, making any rescue extremely challenging. Operating at the extreme limits of the lifeboat’s capabilities, Damien used great seamanship skills to manoeuvre the lifeboat towards the two men, who were struggling to stay above the crashing surf. They managed to pull one of the men to safety. The other was recovered to the lifeboat, but, tragically, did not survive.

For their outstanding courage and bravery in the face of great danger, Damien has been awarded the RNLI’s Silver Medal for Gallantry and Nicola-Jane and Matthew have each been awarded the charity’s Bronze Medal for Gallantry.

Michael Vlasto, RNLI Operations Director, said: ‘This was a service carried out in very difficult conditions with confused and breaking seas very close to a dangerous lee shore, semi-submerged rocks and floating rope in the water. Helmsman Damien Bolton and his two crew - Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Matthew Main - were aware of the risk they were exposing themselves to, but felt that the potential of saving a life outweighed that risk. Although this rescue was also marked by tragedy, it is a testament to their bravery, skill and tenacity that one of the men survived and made a full recovery.’

Paul Sleeman, who survived the incident, and the rest of his family, said: ‘Paul, Linda, Mark, Jenna, Emma and the rest of the family of the late Peter Sleeman would like to pass on their sincere congratulations to Damien, Nicki and Matt, three truly amazing people on their very worthy awards. Without their skills, bravery and determination Paul wouldn’t be here today, his life was saved with seconds to spare.

Also the huge effort they went to, to recover Pete which enabled us to lay him to rest, is something that the whole family will always be grateful for.

The family are also grateful for the continuous help and support during this tragic and difficult time from all at Port Isaac RNLI, some wonderful strong long-term relationships have been made.

Port Isaac RNLI now holds a very special place in all our hearts.’

Detailed account of the rescue

The Port Isaac inshore lifeboat was launched on Sunday 8 April just after 8.25am to reports of two people in the water at Tregardock. On board the D class lifeboat Copeland Bell were volunteer Helmsman Damien Bolton and crew members Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Matthew Main.

The wind was west-southwest force 4-5, and with high tide approaching and the wind blowing onshore, the conditions at the cliffs where the two men had been swept into the water were challenging. When the lifeboat crew arrived on scene at 8.36am, they found a 3 metre dumping sea breaking onto the cliff face, exacerbated by waves reflecting off the cliff, which created a rough and confused sea close inshore.

The Coastguard informed the volunteers that the two casualties were in the water at an area called The Steps and that a RAF rescue helicopter had been tasked and was 11 minutes away. Helmsman Damien Bolton headed to the area and spotted two people in the water very close to the cliffs, being tumbled in the surf. The men were within an arc of semi-submerged rocks, which would make any rescue very challenging. While Helmsman Damien Bolton was assessing the situation, one of the casualties was turned by a wave and, on seeing the lifeboat, shouted for help and raised an arm before disappearing below the surface again.

Helmsman Damien Bolton decided to use a manoeuvre called veering down – a technique the crew practice regularly – in which the crew pay out the anchor cable whilst applying astern power, manoeuvring the lifeboat backwards under control towards the casualty. By this means the crew can use the anchor to help control the position of the lifeboat when working near a dangerous lee shore. Helmsman Damien Bolton positioned the lifeboat about 70 metres from the casualty so that Crew Member Matthew Main could drop the anchor and then slack the anchor warp while Crew Member Nicola-Jane Bradbury kept a lookout for large waves and operated the radio.

Helmsman Damien Bolton helmed the lifeboat safely over two sets of 3 metre waves as he brought it within 3 metres of the cliff face and a couple of metres from the casualties. One was holding onto the other and an orange rope appeared to be tangled around them. Concerned that the rope may get caught around the lifeboat’s propeller if he took the lifeboat closer, Helmsman Damien Bolton called for the men to swim to the boat.

First wrapping the line around his fellow casualty, one of the men made his way to the lifeboat where Crew Member Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Helmsman Damien Bolton attempted to pull him aboard. Matthew Main warned that a large wave was approaching, which then broke over the lifeboat, filling it with water. At the same time, the engine stopped and the lifeboat began to turn sideways onto the waves, exposing the crew to the risk of capsize. Helmsman Damien Bolton quickly restarted the engine and applied power astern to turn the lifeboat's bow to face the waves. All three crew members then worked together to get the casualty who had reached the boat on board. The orange rope was attached to him and it appeared to be connected to the man still in the water, so Matthew secured one end to the lifeboat.

With the confused seas and submerged rocks, the lifeboat and volunteer crew were operating at their limits and, with the casualty onboard the lifeboat deteriorating rapidly and needing immediate care, they had to make a quick assessment of the situation. Having not seen any response from the second casualty, and since reaching him could put everybody on the lifeboat in more danger, Helmsman Damien Bolton decided to helm the lifeboat away from the cliff where the first man could be transferred to the rescue helicopter, which was on its way.

It was too risky to recover the anchor, so Crew Member Matthew Main cut the line and Helmsman Damien Bolton helmed the lifeboat towards deeper water, pulling the second casualty clear of the cliff as he did so. Once away from the cliff and out of the breaking seas, the lifeboat crew attended the first casualty who was drifting in and out of consciousness. Crew Member Matthew Main took off his helmet and put it onto the man’s head to prevent heat loss.

Meanwhile Helmsman Damien Bolton pulled in the orange line to bring the second casualty alongside the lifeboat. Sadly he was not breathing and was unresponsive and was later declared dead. The crew’s priority now was to evacuate the first casualty, whose condition was deteriorating, and they quickly manoeuvred the lifeboat so that he could be winched into the rescue helicopter. He was taken to hospital where he subsequently made a full recovery.

Notes to editors

  • Summary of awards:
    •  RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry – Senior Helmsman Damien Bolton
    •  RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – Crew Member Nicola-Jane Bradbury
    •  RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – Crew Member Matthew Main
  • Photo of cliffs shows scene of rescue in similar conditions. Credit RNLI
  • Photo of lifeboat shows Port Isaac D class lifeboat Copeland Bell in action. Damien Bolton is at the helm and Nicola-Jane Bradbury is the crew member on the left. Credit RNLI/Bob Bulgin
  •  Photo of crew shows (r-l) Senior Helmsman Damien Bolton, Crew Member Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Crew Member Matthew Main. Credit Adrian Jasper.
  •  Photos of the area (taken in similar conditions) of the rescue are attached
  • A diagram of the rescue is attached
  • RNLI spokespeople are available for interview. Please contact RNLI Public Relations on the number below to arrange an interview.

Media contacts

For more information please contact;

  • Bob Bulgin, Port Isaac volunteer Lifeboat Press Officer, on 07768 631526 or reb37@btinternet.com
  • Emma Haines, RNLI Press Officer South West, on 01752 850689 or 07920 818807 or emma_haines@rnli.org.uk
  • Isla Reynolds, RNLI Newsdesk and PR Manager, on 01202 663127 or 07899 076224 or by email at isla_reynolds@rnli.org.uk
  • RNLI Central Press Office on 01202 336789 or pressoffice@rnli.org.uk

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The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. Our volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland from 237 lifeboat stations, including four along the River Thames and inland lifeboat stations at Loch Ness, Lough Derg, Enniskillen and Lough Ree. Additionally the RNLI has more than 1,000 lifeguards on over 180 beaches around the UK and operates a specialist flood rescue team, which can respond anywhere across the UK and Ireland when inland flooding puts lives at risk.

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