Angler Paul Sleeman

Experience and compassion combined when three lifeboat volunteers faced the toughest test to rescue father and son Peter and Paul Sleeman who were washed into the sea while fishing from the shore.

It was Easter Sunday, 8 April 2012, and Peter and Paul were angling between Port Isaac and Tintagel in Cornwall. Aware that the tide was coming in, they started to climb the steps from the shore when a large wave swept Paul into the sea.

Grabbing a torpedo-style lifeline, Peter threw it to Paul and began to pull his son to safety – but then Peter was swept in too.

They had been in the water for about 30 minutes at the isolated spot before a passing walker spotted them and called the Coastguard.

‘A risky procedure’

Helm Damien Bolton and Crew Members Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Matthew Main, with 37 years' experience between them, launched Port Isaac's D class lifeboat, Copeland Bell, at 8.26am and arrived on scene within 7 minutes to find the men pinned in a boiling torrent of water within an arc of semi-submerged rocks.

To reduce the risk of capsize in such hazardous conditions, the crew deployed the anchor and Damien reversed to within 2m of the casualties, keeping the bow facing the swell – a procedure called veering down.

‘The only option we had was to veer down, which was a risky procedure in the rough conditions,’ Damien explains. ‘We were getting swamped by the waves coming in.’

When Damien spotted the torpedo-style lifeline in the water, he realised he couldn’t get any closer in case it became entangled in the boat’s propeller.

Paul was conscious and reluctant to leave his father but the crew encouraged him to swim to the lifeboat and pulled him onboard.

They found that Paul was attached by rope to Peter so Nicola-Jane and Matthew cut Paul free and secured the line to the boat just as a large wave hit, stopping the engine. This could have been fatal to all but luckily the engine restarted quickly. Damien gave the order to cut the anchor line and quickly drove out of the tumultuous waves into calmer seas.

‘Paul was in a real dire state’

Pulling Peter alongside, the crew checked for signs of life. There were none. Damien made a decision: fitting a lifejacket to Peter’s body to ensure it could be recovered later, he let him go.

Meanwhile, Paul was hypothermic and at risk of secondary drowning so while Nicola-Jane and Matthew concentrated on preserving Paul’s body heat, Damien called for assistance.

‘Paul was in a real dire state,’ Damien recalls. ‘The exhaustion that he took himself to was immense. For someone fully clothed to hold on to a fully grown man, fully clothed, in that situation, for the length of time he did, in those conditions and that temperature of sea, is just amazing, mind-blowing.’

In due course an RAF search and rescue helicopter successfully airlifted Paul to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro while the lifeboat crew recovered Peter's body and took him home to his family – an act Paul and his family will never forget.

Despite their loss, the Sleeman family described the Port Isaac lifeboat crew as: '… truly amazing people. Without their skills, bravery and determination Paul wouldn't be here today [either].'‘All three risked their lives to save me’

In formal recognition of their incredible courage that day, both Nicola-Jane and Matthew received RNLI Bronze Medals for Gallantry and Damien received an RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry.


Stay safe at the coast

Left to right: Paul Sleeman with his rescuers – Port Isaac RNLI Crew Members Matthew Main, Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Damien Bolton.

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

Left to right: Paul with his rescuers – Port Isaac RNLI Crew Members Matthew Main, Nicola-Jane Bradbury and Damien Bolton 
What they do is all voluntary. I know that all three definitely risked their lives that day to save me. It’s quite easy for some people to say that, but for me to see what they did was unbelievable. They all do it for the love of it and because they want to help people. It’s amazing really.