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RNLI Torbay Gold Medal recipient, Keith Bower leads Westminster Abbey procession

Lifeboats News Release

Precisely 52 seconds into the last hymn at Westminster Abbey’s service on Monday 4th March, former Torbay RNLI Deputy Coxswain Keith Bower, was instructed to begin his procession down the length of the aisle carrying the marble and silver replica of the RNLI’s ‘Memorial’ sculpture.

Westyminster Abbey

Keith Bower leads procession at Westminster Abbey

Precisely 52 seconds into the last hymn at Westminster Abbey’s service on Monday 4th March, former Torbay RNLI Deputy Coxswain Keith Bower, was instructed to begin his procession down the length of the aisle carrying the marble and silver replica of the RNLI’s ‘Memorial’ sculpture. ‘The service was very precisely choreographed’, explained Keith.

The RNLI Memorial carries the names of over 600 RNLI volunteers who have died saving the lives of others at sea. Its replica was placed in two prime positions during a service that commemorated the 200th anniversary of RNLI’s foundation by Sir William Hilary in 1824.

Standing initially just inside the entrance of the Abbey greeting visitors as they arrived, it was subsequently carried in procession during the service by Keith to a ceremonial table in front of the alter before the final blessing, where it could be seen and read by The Duke of Kent.

Keith’s central part in the service was assigned in recognition of the Gold Medal he was awarded for rescuing all the ten crew from aboard the stricken Lyrma in a major storm, seven and half miles east-south-east of Start Point, 48 years ago, when he coxed Torbay’s Arun Class ‘Edward Bridges’ 54-02, now permanently berthed and on display at Chatham Lifeboat Museum.

In all UK and Ireland, only three living members of the RNLI currently hold this, their highest award: The Gold Medal for Conspicuous Gallantry. Keith Bower, of Torbay RNLI, is one of them.

On December 6th, 1976, just before 1:00am, Torbay RNLI’s then Acting Coxswain Keith Bower was woken by an urgent call for help. It marked the start of a successful shout that was one of the RNLI’s more dangerous in its long history.

In storm conditions of Force 10 winds gusting 11, with 12m waves – enough to cause the RNLI’s hardened crew members to suffer seasickness - Keith recalls the extreme challenges of the Lyrma rescue on No.194 of RNLI’s ‘200 Voices’ podcasts. (See link below.)

Upon rounding Berry Head, Torbay’s lifeboat faced the full force of the southerly winds. With gales running into a spring tide lifting the waves, Keith ordered everyone except navigator into the wheelhouse and all hatches closed. They were the worst conditions experienced by any of the crew aboard.

When Keith and the crew reached the Lyrma, she was listing dangerously to starboard due to a rolling cargo of filled oil drums and chipboards that had broken free and were in danger of causing her to capsize. She was uncontrollably running slowly in circles due to a jammed rudder in waves of over 40 foot from trough to crest that accentuated her list, pitched and rolled her back and forth, and threatened a total flip each time she came beam to wind.

Keith manged to reach the Lyrma’s skipper by radio. With waves already washing across her well deck on rolls, the skipper feared a further shift in his cargo would capsize her and wanted everyone taken off. However, conditions were such that Keith feared for the safety of all crew if transferred to his lifeboat. So, he requested a Sea King helicopter.

Meanwhile, conditions steadily worsened as the wind veered slightly causing further confusion to already very troubled sea conditions. There was similar confusion aboard the Lyrma since only the skipper could speak English. A life raft was lowered, but nobody appeared to be willing to get into it.

The Coastguard advised that no Sea King was available, but RFA Engadine was making her way from Plymouth with a Wessex helicopter aboard. She arrived at 3:15am and her helicopter took off within 15 minutes. A winchman was bravely lowered, but he became tangled in the davits of the Lyrma, endangering the helicopter itself and he was within seconds of being cut loose before he managed to free himself and get back up into his aircraft. That ended any further air rescue attempts. The pilot later stated that he believed the RNLI vessel would also shortly need rescuing.

Attempts to draw close to the stricken vessel from leeward to transfer the crew off, appeared way too dangerous as she lurched up and down and from side to side in the high winds and huge swells.

A red flare fired from the desperate Lyrma to attract assistance, only flew back in the wind, landing onto the wheelhouse and setting it briefly alight. The situation did not look too good.

A 27,000 tonne, 200 foot Eurofreighter on standby was requested to help by acting as a windbreak, but she only added to the sea’s confusion and had to pull out due to waves washing too dangerously over her top decks as she tried to position herself to windward.

Keith decided the only option was to attempt a boat to boat transfer, using 20 second breaks between sequential waves to approach in manoeuvres that broke with the rule books.

The skipper of the Lyrma was persuaded to muster his crew on the starboard side aft and two RNLI crewmembers volunteered to go forward with fenders to assist with the transfers.

Twelve runs were then made by the Edward Bridges to collect all on board. Some runs succeeded in bringing the terrified crew over voluntarily, some transferred across only when the RNLI crew members up front stepped over the guardrails to grab and pull them on board. Some runs failed completely to bring anyone back.

On the sixth run, luck nearly ran out as the Lyrma lurched right over the lifeboat, smashing down onto her forward topside and forcing her down into the water, sending the RNLI crew members diving for safety.

“We heard loud pops like rifle shots, which we later worked out were stanchion bolts erupting. Guardrails were stoven inward, with one up to 45 degrees, as a result. We could reach up from the conning bridge and touch the side of the Lyrma above us as she pushed down. We feared major structural damage. But our luck did hold, and we pulled away to return back again a further half dozen more times.”

On their final run the skipper was picked up. But the relief at completing the rescue from the boat was short-lived when the Lyrma’s crew now below deck shouted up to inform Keith that two of their crew were still aboard, stuck in their inflatable life raft that was then dangling off the rear portside of the vessel.

The lifeboat manoeuvred to the windward port side of the Lyrma and tried to communicate by sign language to the seamen to cut the line holding them. This took a while. But they found the knife in the life raft and succeeded in releasing the craft, which then dropped into the water. However, that meant they soon shot off in the gale-force winds, and with 40 foot waves, were only briefly visible for mere moments whilst on a crest.

Keith’s attempt to catch up with them did not go as planned as the sole RNLI crewman up front fell forward in a downward plunge into a trough, just as he released his intended safety line. But very fortunately it found its intended target in what turned out to be a perfect ‘throw’, landing inside the inflatable. And both remaining two seamen were safely brought aboard the lifeboat.

During the entire evacuation, Engadine’s Wessex stood-by and the pilot later said that he considered the lifeboat displayed ‘fantastic seamanship’. He would not have believed it possible to get anyone safely aboard a lifeboat in those conditions.

‘The best bit of the night was getting the Lyrma crew back safely onto dry land off our jetty, and then getting ourselves into the boat house for a cup of hot pea and ham soup at 5:15am. We were then back at our day jobs at 9:00!’

The other six volunteers aboard the Edward Bridges, including Keith’s brother Stephen J Bower, were all awarded Bronze Medals. “We couldn’t have done it without every single one of us being there. I just happened to be driving.”

Continuing the family tradition, Keith’s nephew’s and Stephen’s sons, Ray and Will Bower, both currently serve on RNLI Torbay’s crew.

To hear Keith’s full take on events, listen to No. 194 of RNLI’s ‘200 Voices’, produced by Adventurous Audio. Interview by the RNLI's Eleanor Driscoll. Soundtrack composed and performed by Jon Nicholls:

And the full Westminster Abbey service can be found at

The RNLI is a charity celebrating 200 years of saving lives at sea - find out more at

Replica of the Memorial statue outside HQ Poole. It is made of marble and silver

RNLI/Niall Blatcher

RNLI Memorial replica at Westminster Abbey
Memorial listing over 600 RNLI crew lost in rescues

RNLI/Niall Blatcher

RNLI Memorial statue outside HQ Poole
At the entrance of the Abbey, about to start the procession

Westminster Abbey

At the entrance of the Abbey, about to start the procession
For this service the gold medal for gallantry has been awarded to Acting Coxswain Keith W. Bower. A bar to the bronze medal has been awarded to Crew Member John Dew and the bronze medal to Motor Mechanic Stephen J. Bower, Assistant Mechanic William John Hunkin and Crew Members Michael Mills, Nicholas Davies and Richard R. Brown..

RNLI archives

Acting Coxswain, Keith Bower and RNLI Torbay crew, outside Festival Hall
54ft Arun Class 54-03 'Edward Bridges'


54ft Arun Class 54-03 'Edward Bridges'

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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.

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