50 Years On, Survivor Tells Dunbar Lifeboat Crew: I Owe You Everything
The bravery of Dunbar RNLI lifeboat crew – and of one volunteer in particular – has been movingly recalled by a survivor pulled from the sea in a force ten gale 50 years ago.
Martin Stephen, now 71, owes his life to the courage of David Brunton who, despite not being a strong swimmer, jumped into the treacherous swell as he sank unconscious beneath the waves. Martin had tried and failed to rescue his 11-year-old cousin David Jeffrey who had been swept off the rocks at the entrance to Dunbar Harbour by a freak wave on December 23rd, 1970.
Martin said: “I had been face down in the water for several minutes and was told later that Mr Brunton dived in fully clothed as I started to sink.”
David, brother of then lifeboat coxswain Robert George Brunton, grabbed Martin by the hair and managed to raise his head above the surface. In the bitingly cold water David began to struggle and a second crewmember, Jonathan Alston, went overboard to assist.
Using a throwing line and breeches belt, the rest of the crew hauled both volunteers and Martin aboard the Margaret lifeboat where second coxswain Alexander Wilson performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and managed to get Martin breathing. He then took it in turns with assistant mechanic Andrew Smith to keep Martin alive until they could get him ashore. While Martin received medical assistance, the lifeboat searched for David’s body but sadly he could not be found.
As the 50th anniversary of that dramatic rescue approaches, Martin wrote to current coxswain Gary Fairbairn saying: “I’ve had 50 years of the happiest possible marriage, three sons and five grandchildren. All in all I’ve been able to live a wonderful life, but only because of the bravery of one man, the skill of another and the dedication and courage of the crew of the Dunbar lifeboat. I owe you everything.”
Martin, then a 21-year-old student in Sheffield, had been in Dunbar visiting his aunt, Maeve Jeffrey, of Biel Grange Farm, and had gone with cousins David and Angus, 14, to watch as the storm force northerly wind sent waves as high as ten metres crashing over the harbour wall – something they had done countless times before.
“We were standing at the mouth of the harbour when a freak wave came over caught Davie and smashed him against the rocks, knocking him into the water,” Martin recalled.
“I hadn’t even realised he had been standing higher up on the rocks. As soon as I saw him I jumped in and managed to reach him. I held him in the rescue position but we kept going under. I think he was already dead.
“We were in about a ten foot swell and kept going under. We were in the water for about ten minutes. I pushed him back up, hoping the air in his jacket would keep him afloat but he kept sinking. I took off my wellies and jacket and kept swimming but could feel the hypothermia start to set in. My fingers and feet were numb. My body was aching because I’d hit some rocks while jumping in. I was convinced I was dead but I kept swimming. I thought of my fiancée Jenny and her being told that I’d died. I wanted to tell her that death didn’t hurt. That’s when I lost consciousness.”
While Martin was desperately trying to save his cousin, Angus Jeffrey raised the alarm. In four minutes the 47ft Watson class Margaret was steaming from its moorings. It quickly arrived on scene, guided by fishermen who were on lookout from the rocks, including Davie Kittrick, who today serves as a deputy launch authority for the lifeboat. Davie said: “The lifeboat was having difficulty getting alongside because of the heavy swell.”
Martin’s unconscious body was barely visible above the water but David spotted him thanks to his bright blue shirt. For his courage David was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry and Jonathan Alston the Institution’s Thanks on Vellum. Remarkably, David was not officially a member of the crew but as an experienced fishing boat skipper was frequently called upon to join the lifeboat crew. Remarkably, the Brunton family over the years produced three coxswains for Dunbar and at one stage six Brunton brothers all volunteered on the crew.
Martin, a retired headteacher and writer, asked to be put in touch with David Brunton’s family so he could thank them personally and he wrote: “I also wanted your volunteers to know just how lasting their work can be.”
Coxswain Gary admitted to feeling a “lump in his throat” on reading the letter and shared its contents with the crew and other station volunteers, who were equally moved by the touching sentiment. Although both David and Robert Brunton have since sadly passed on, he was able to put Martin in touch with David’s son Jamie Brunton, who still lives in the town.
Jamie, 61, a retired engineer, said: “I am very proud of my dad and what he did. Growing up, Dad’s commendation plaque for the rescue was on the wall in our living room but although we asked him about it my dad never spoke of it. Being young, I have very little memory of the day other than it was not a normal day as dad came home soaking wet. I also remember being sent to answer our door when the press arrived and telling them Dad had nothing to say.
“It was a surprise to his children – we never saw our father in the water during our youth and assumed he couldn’t swim. It wasn’t until we were adults and had children of our own that we saw him swim. My brother and sister confirmed Dad never spoke of the rescue. I think his attitude was ‘that’s what the lifeboat does and the crew do’, knowing full well as someone who loved the sea that his life could also be dependent on the RNLI one day.
“I don’t think I really understood the risks the RNLI take and the dangers the crew face and how dad had saved a man’s life at great risk to his own until Martin got in touch to tell me his story. Martin said he would not have had the wonderful life, three sons and five grandchildren if was not for the RNLI and my dad. Our family is extremely proud. Our eldest son, named David after his grandfather, now holds the medals he was awarded along with his framed letter of commendation. All of his grandchildren are fascinated by their grandfather’s story and his youngest grandson, Christopher, hopes to return to Dunbar in the near future and wishes to join the lifeboat crew if possible to keep the Brunton tradition alive.”
Martin said: “As a result of my experience I wanted to help people and make a difference.” He became a schoolteacher, then headmaster at Perse School, Cambridge, and one of only two people to have been High Master at both Manchester Grammar and St Paul’s in London. He now lives in Norfolk and has survived heart surgery, cancer, a stroke and a haemorrhage.
Despite those scares, the events of 1970 are never far from his thoughts. He said David’s mother Maeve, an active member of the Ladies Lifeboat Guild before she died, refused to blame him for the tragedy. Martin said: “She said we were in the wrong place in the wrong time.”
He used to ring her on December 23 every year. “We never mentioned Davie but she knew why I was ringing. Now on the 23rd I shall be on the phone to Angus, who called the coastguard and also saved my life. I imagine we’ll not mention Davie but we’ll know why I was ringing.”
And he added: “I go back to Dunbar very regularly because we are still very close to the family and the forgiveness from the family has been one of the crucial things that allowed me to keep on living.
“Every time I go back I go near to that spot in the harbour and I say sorry to David. And will do no doubt while the good Lord lets me live the rest of my life.”
On David Brunton’s courage, he said: “Words fail me. No one asked him to jump in yet he did.”
Gary Fairbairn said: “It was such a wonderful letter for the station to receive and we’re very grateful to Martin for getting in touch. It reminded the crew why we do what we do and brought home how proud we are of the crews that have served before us.”
As the RNLI launches its Christmas Appeal with the message that our volunteers are on call 24/7, including Christmas Day, and we rely on the public’s donations to keep our crew’s safe, Martin added: “Christmas is special because the whole family meet together but they would not have been there at all without the courage and devotion of the crew of the Dunbar lifeboat. When you save a life, you don’t only save the past and the present. You save the future.”
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 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.