Torbay RNLI volunteers recall a dramatic shout 41 years ago

Lifeboats News Release

When a Mayday call came in from the Brixham Pilot boat Leslie H at 12.35am on Sunday 19 February 1978 it took just three minutes for seven RNLI Torbay volunteers to launch their lifeboat Edward Bridges into mountainous seas.

RNLI/Shona Duncan

A photo of the pilot boat Leslie H being battered in high seas before it foundered off Berry Head, South Devon.
After battling through 30ft waves for twenty minutes, the RNLI volunteers took two of the pilot boat crew aboard the lifeboat one mile East of Berry Head. The Pilot Captain Bob Curtis remained on the Leslie H to manage the tow and once the RNLI volunteers secured their tow line the lifeboat set course for Brixham.

Soon after the two boats were underway, they were hit by a rogue 40ft wave which swung the lifeboat broadside and rolled it over by 90 degrees until its keel was visble.

RNLI Coxwain George Dyer was totally submerged in the sea, he lost his glasses and boots, but managed to hang on. However, volunteer crew member John Ashford, who had managed to crouch down and wrap his arms under the lifeboat’s handrail, was washed overboard by the wave.

Second Coxwain Keith Bower, who had held onto his upper steering position on the lifeboat despite the force of the capsize, managed to alter the Edward Bridges course to allow Coxwain Dyer to get a rope out to John Ashford and pull him to safety.

After the capsize, Coxswain Dyer decided that the risk to life in continuing the tow was too great. The volunteer RNLI crew took Captain Bob Curtis onto the lifeboat and let go the tow rope. Although the Leslie H was dashed on the rocks beneath Berry Head soon after, the RNLI volunteers battled back to Brixham and returned the pilot crew to shore without serious injury.

Despite being swept overboard that day, John Ashford went on to give another 40 years service to the RNLI in Torbay and only retired as relief Coxswain in 2018. True to the RNLI tradition of generation after generation of families giving service to the charity, two of Keith Bower’s nephews Ray and Will are volunteer crew on the Torbay Lifeboat today.

Coxwain Dyer was awarded the RNLI’s Bronze Medal for his courage, fine seamanship and outstanding leadership during this extraordinary rescue. RNLI Medal certificates were also awarded to the volunteer crew of Keith Bower, Ron Bradford, Arthur Curnow, Brian Caunter, John Hunkin and John Ashford.

Notes to editors

Photos: Leslie H being battered in high seas before foundering off Berry Head, Edward Bridges on operations in the 1970's and Edward Bridges alongside the QE2.

Torbay Lifeboat Station Key Facts:

RNLI media contacts

Shona Duncan, RNLI Torbay Acting Lifeboat Press Officer (Volunteer)

07778 002866 or shona.duncan@rnli.org.uk

Emma Haines, RNLI Regional Media Officer:

01752 854450 or emma_haines@rnli.org.uk

or RNLI Public Relations at Poole HQ on 01202 336 789 (24 hours)

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Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 230 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and has more than 180 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved 140,000 lives.

A charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SCO37736). Charity number CHY 2678 in the Republic of Ireland

RNLI/Shona Duncan

The Edward Bridges in calmer seas alongside the QE2.

RNLI/Shona Duncan

Torbay Lifeboat Edward Bridges on exercise in the 1970s

RNLI/Shona Duncan

RNLI Torbay Coxswain George Dyer

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

Learn more about the RNLI

For more information please visit the RNLI website or Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. News releases, videos and photos are available on the News Centre.

Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or or by email.