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Bravery Medal for Portrush Lifeboatman

5th November 2009
Bravery Medal for Portrush Lifeboatman

Anthony Chambers, mechanic and crew member at Portush Lifeboat Station, Antrim, N. Ireland, is to be awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) Bronze Medal for Gallantry for rescuing two 14-year-old boys trapped by the rising tide in a cliff cave near Castlerock Strand on 5 August 2009.

The Coastguard tasked land, sea and air rescue teams as soon as the alarm was raised by worried parents, and the RNLI charity’s all-weather and inshore lifeboats at Portrush launched to help with the search operation. The boys’ location in the cave was discovered by a Coastguard cliff rescue volunteer, however the sea conditions and rising tide made all attempts to reach the boys futile – including two initial attempts by the inshore lifeboat to get close to the cave.


After observing the situation, a crewman on the all-weather lifeboat, Mechanic Anthony Chambers (pictured above) volunteered to enter the water and swim into the cave as he believed he could reach the boys, who were trapped right at the back of the cave chest-deep in water. After Anthony prepared himself for the rescue and the crew of inshore lifeboat got him as close as possible, he entered the surging water.

Fighting against the elements in almost total darkness, he was smashed against the cave wall before reaching the boys for the first time. Rescuing them one at a time, it took Anthony 30 minutes to complete the difficult and treacherous return-swim twice with the rising tide against him.

RNLI Divisional Inspector for Ireland, Martyn Smith, says: ‘Having been trapped in the cave for over three hours wearing only shorts and T-shirts on a rising spring tide, there is no doubt that the boys were in very real danger.

‘The actions of Mechanic Chambers in making two entries to the cave to rescue the boys demonstrated selfless courage without regard for his own safety. Entry into the cave required immense physical and mental effort, especially as he was hindered on both occasions by the additional lifejacket and helmet carried for each boy.

Swimming continuously for half an hour in surging swells, often colliding the cave walls, Mechanic Chamber’s determination and resourcefulness were critical in saving the boys’ lives that day.’

Inshore lifeboat Helmsman Gerard Bradley repeatedly manoeuvred his craft in the rocky sea area at the mouth of the cave, where conditions were turbulent, and for his part in the rescue Helmsman Bradley (42) will be awarded a Letter of Thanks signed by the RNLI’s Chairman. The all-weather lifeboat crew helped initially with the search and then carried out first aid and prepared the two boys to be airlifted into the rescue helicopter for rapid transfer to hospital. For their part in this lifesaving service, Portrush inshore lifeboat Crew Members Karl O’Neill and Jonathon Weston, along with their colleagues on the all-weather, Coxswain William McAuley and Crew Members David Conley, Gary McLaughlin, Adrian Tohill and Ivan Bell, will each receive Medal Service Certificates from the Institution.

Martyn Smith continues: ‘Helmsman Bradley rapidly adapted to changing circumstances and remained undaunted throughout. Operating close inshore in confined waters and with virtually no sea room on his final recovery at the cave mouth, his initiative and boat handling were of the highest standard. The crews of the RNLI Portrush lifeboats exhibited outstanding teamwork and professionalism throughout this protracted service, which incorporated many elements of their training.’

Full rescue scenario

Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Portrush lifeboat station, two lives saved

At 5.20pm on Wednesday 5 August, the Portrush Lifeboat Operations Manager, Mr Robin Cardwell, was informed by Belfast Coastguard that a 999 call had been received reporting two missing boys in the Castlerock area 6 nautical miles to the west of Portrush Harbour. Belfast Coastguard requested the launch of the Portrush all-weather lifeboat (ALB) and inshore lifeboat (ILB) to search the area of coastline at Castlerock where the boys had last been seen. Mr Cardwell authorised the launch of both lifeboats.

Earlier that afternoon, three teenage boys, who were on holiday in the area with their families, had been playing on the shoreline west of Castlerock Strand. Having left their parents they had headed west along the coast exploring the numerous rock pools and crevasses. On entering one of the many caves on this section of the Antrim coast, one of the boys was stung by a jellyfish and returned to his parents at Castlerock Strand, arriving with them at 3pm. The boy and his parents returned to their caravan to tend to the minor wound assuming the other two boys would follow shortly.  By 3.45pm the parents, concerned that the other two boys had not returned, went back to Castlerock Strand and began looking for them, eventually extend their search westwards. The time was now 5.19pm and, having not seen their sons for some two and a half hours, they had dialled 999.

By 5.30pm both lifeboats left Portrush Harbour, expected to arrive on scene at 5.50pm. Coxswain William McAuley was in command of the ALB with crew Mechanic Anthony Chambers and Crew Members David Conley, Gary McLaughlin, AdrianTohill and Ivan Bell. Helmsman Gerard Bradley launched the ILB with Crew Members Karl O’Neill and Jonathan Weston onboard. Conditions were fair with good visibility, a force 2–3 southerly breeze and a moderate sea state with a rolling 1.5m swell. High water was at 7.41pm on spring tides giving a further two hours of flood tide in the search area. Both lifeboats set a course to the west then south-west to clear Portstewart taking the most direct route to Castlerock Strand. Coxswain McAuley and Helmsman Bradley were able to maintain good speed while their crews made preparations for the shoreline search they would conduct on arrival. Lookouts were posted with binoculars and a description of the boys from Belfast Coastguard was passed to both crews. The Y boat stowed aboard the ALB was readied for launch to support the ILB in searching the shoreline if required. Crew Members Conley and McLaughlin donned drysuits and ILB lifejackets in preparation for manning the Y boat. The lifeboats arrived on scene 360m off Castlerock Strand at 5.51pm.
The search area was set and stretched from Castlerock Strand to the mouth of Lough Foyle, 6 miles to the west. Belfast Coastguard also tasked the Coleraine and Ballycastle volunteer Coastguard Rescue Teams and requested the Irish Coast Guard rescue helicopter, which was expected on scene at 6.45pm. The Coastguard team met the parents of the missing boys at Castlerock Strand and commenced searching the cliff tops and shoreline. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) also joined the search.

At 6pm Helmsman Bradley commenced a shoreline search on a westerly heading from Castlerock Strand, having initially manoeuvred close inshore to check the entrance of the largest cave in the area.  Helmsman Bradley reported on the VHF that there was no apparent sign of the boys in the cave but the 1.5–2m rolling swell at the cave entrance, in his opinion, made an entry by the ILB too dangerous. Coxswain McAuley and the crew of the ALB also headed west towards Musenden conducting a visual search of the shoreline. Beneath Musenden Temple a second cave presented the same danger to the ILB crew as the first. Once again Helmsman Bradley manoeuvred the ILB as close as he could in order to view the cave entrance, but nothing was seen or heard. Having conducted an extensive shoreline search both Coxswain McAuley and Helmsman Bradley were confident that if the boys were still in the area they had to be in one of the caves. The time now was 6.30pm and both the ALB and ILB reversed course while their crews continued searching the stretch of coastline for a second time. Coxswain McAuley and Helmsman Bradley decided to return to the larger of the two caves, as it was closest to Castlerock Strand, and planned to launch the ALB’s  Y boat to provide backup to the ILB, and to attempt to veer down into the cave. By 6.40pm both lifeboats were in position 180m offshore and the Y boat had been launched.

Meanwhile the coastguard teams had set up two sets of their cliff rescue apparatus and planned to lower personnel into each of the two caves, which were now inaccessible on foot due to the state of tide. At 6.44pm the rescue helicopter arrived and began a low level search from the western extremity of the search area. At 6.47pm the coastguard team member lowered part way down the mouth of the larger cave and reported that he could hear the two boys in the cave. However, from his suspended position he was unable to assist further in their recovery. The boys had already been trapped in the cave for several hours and with another hour of flood tide still to go they were in imminent danger of drowning. All units involved in the search for the missing boys were now faced with the problem of reaching the two boys.

Having consulted with Coxswain McAuley, Helmsman Bradley developed a plan to veer down as close as possible to the cave entrance and Crew Member O’Neill, who was a strong swimmer, would attempt to swim into the cave with lifejackets and helmets. Communications between all the agencies involved were good and all agreed that the ILB presented the best option to reach the stranded boys.

Helmsman Bradley manoeuvred the ILB alongside the ALB and two lifejackets and helmets were taken onboard for the boys. The rescue helicopter was requested to remain on-scene in order to winch the casualties should Crew Member O’Neill be successful. But the aircraft had insufficient wind to conduct a static winch so landed nearby to conserve fuel should they be required in a different capacity.

At 7.04pm Helmsman Bradley brought the ILB head to sea some 30m from the cave entrance. The northerly swell could be seen surging over rocks, which lay between the ILB and the cave entrance. The plan required Helmsman Bradley to attempt to veer down as close to seaward of the rocks as possible and for Crew Member O’Neill to enter the water and try to scramble across the rocks to reach the cave entrance, then swim to the boys. The surging swell and sandy nature of the seabed meant that the secure anchor hold required to do this was hard to achieve. Helmsman Bradley and the crew of the ILB deployed the anchor several times without success paying out more line on each attempt. Abandoning the veering, Helmsman Bradley re-briefed his crew to bring the ILB as close as possible to the rocks running out to seaward from the cave entrance, turn head to sea to allow Crew Member O’Neill to enter the water and hold the ILB’s position within a distance appropriate for the use of the 20m throw bag – this could then be thrown to Crew Member O’Neill on his return swim with each boy.

At 7.10pm Helmsman Bradley made his approach and Crew Member O’Neill entered the water and tried to swim across toward the cave entrance, but the combination of refracting swell and backwash from the cave further hindered Crew Member O’Neill’s efforts to make headway. After several minutes it became clear to Helmsman Bradley that his crewman was tiring rapidly. Concerned for his safety he came astern on the throttle while maintaining the ILB head to sea. Within metres of the rocks, Crew Member O’Neill was recovered back aboard the ILB on the starboard quarter with the assistance of Crew Member Weston. The time now was 7.15pm.

Coxswain McAuley and his crew had been watching; knowing that the condition of the boys was unknown and the rescue efforts seemed stalled, Mechanic Chambers approached Coxswain McAuley stating that he was confident he could make the entry if the ILB could get him close enough to the outer rocks; the Coxswain agreed to the proposal. Mechanic Chambers – having witnessed Crew Member O’Neill’s attempt – decided not to wear an ILB lifejacket, as the additional buoyancy had made swimming in the swell difficult. Donning a thermal undersuit, drysuit and ALB lifejacket with the automatic head removed and equipping himself with a torch, Mechanic Chambers was transferred to the ILB by the Y boat with Crew member McLaughlin at the helm. Mechanic Chambers then briefed Helmsman Bradley on the ILB that he intended to take one lifejacket as a buoyancy aid, and that he wanted to enter the water while Helmsman Bradley made a sternboard towards the rocks, minimising the distance he had to cover.

At 7.30pm Helmsman Bradley once again made an approach to the rocks. Turning head to sea, Mechanic Chambers entered the water on the starboard side holding the ILB’s safety line, he instructed Helmsman Bradley to come astern while he kept himself clear of the outboard engine propeller. Approaching as close as he dare without risking striking the propeller, Helmsman Bradley momentarily placed the engine in neutral while Mechanic Chambers pushed himself clear towards the rocks. He had a helmet and a lifejacket looped over one arm. Half crawling, half swimming Mechanic Chambers managed – on the rise and fall of the swell – to cross the rocks into the deeper water beyond and toward the mouth of the cave. Passing under the Coastguard suspended above, Mechanic Chambers entered the cave keeping tight to the cave wall; it was in near total darkness and initially Mechanic Chambers found he could make no progress against the surging backwash from the cave’s interior.  Pinning himself to the cave wall he timed his release with each surge, sometimes making headway but occasionally being forced back towards the cave mouth. After 5 minutes and around 7m into the cave on the left, it curved round to the left, where a rock protrusion blocked his progress forcing him to cross the cave. With no contact with the cave walls, Mechanic Chambers swam to the right wall on a surge.  Feeling his body impact against the cave wall, he again held himself firm to the uneven surface of the rock. From here, he could make out the shape of the two boys’ faces at the far end of the cave. The cave narrowed markedly over the remaining 4–5m and the boys were at its very extremity. Mustering his energy Mechanic Chambers timed his release from the cave wall as he felt the next inward surge of water and swam towards the boys.

The boys were located on a steeply shelving shingle beach at the far end of the cave where they were pinned chest deep during inward surges of the swell. On reaching them, Mechanic Chambers spoke to them with calmness and reassurance. Equipped with only one lifejacket and helmet he assessed which of the two boys appeared to be in the worst condition, asking each in turn how they felt. Barely able to make out one another’s faces in the darkness Mechanic Chambers decided which of the two boys he would extract first. Fitting the ILB lifejacket and helmet, Mechanic Chambers instructed the boy to hold him firmly from behind using the webbing of his lifejacket to assist his hold. Timing their departure from the back wall of the cave following a surge Mechanic Chambers reassured the other boy that he would be back in a few minutes to collect him.

Reversing the method he had used on entering the cave, Mechanic Chambers manoeuvred the boy out timing his movements with the backwash from each swell. As Mechanic Chambers emerged with the boy from the cave efforts were made by the Coastguard team member suspended above to pass the strop to lift the boy up the cliff to safety, but worried about letting go of the boy who was notably weakened, Mechanic Chambers shouted at Helmsman Bradley to get a line to him from the ILB instead. Crew Member O’Neill threw a heaving line, which just reached Mechanic Chambers. Holding the boy firmly in one arm and the heaving line in the other Crew Members O’Neill and Weston hauled the pair toward the ILB while Helmsman Bradley cautiously applied throttle to tow the pair into safer waters to seaward. Once Mechanic Chambers and the young lad were alongside, ILB Crew Members O’Neill and Weston recovered the boy onboard laying him down on the deck floor of the ILB. The time was now 7.40pm.  Mechanic Chambers remained in the water and requested Helmsman Bradley pass him the second lifejacket and helmet before going back into the cave.

Without hesitation or time to recover his breath, Helmsman Bradley towed Mechanic Chambers towards the cave. This time Helmsman Bradley approached from the west end of the rocks, a more hazardous approach, which would get Mechanic Chambers directly to the cave entrance. This required the ILB to make a sternboard between the off-lying rocks and cliff face, which formed a channel running east west. Reading the approaching swells and timing his approach carefully, Helmsman Bradley was successful in getting Mechanic Chambers as close to the cave entrance as possible. On hearing the outboard engine come to neutral, Mechanic Chambers released his hold on the ILB and once he was clear of her stern Helmsman Bradley applied full throttle to clear the channel.

While Crew Members O’Neill and Weston comforted the recovered boy, Helmsman Bradley, reached the ALB lying a short distance offshore to the north, and at 7.50pm the boy was transferred into the care of the ALB crew who immediately began a full appraisal of his condition. The boy was found to be very cold and was wrapped in blankets in the warmth of the wheelhouse.

At 7.45pm Mechanic Chambers re-entered the cave, passing underneath the suspended Coastguard above who called out words of encouragement. Mechanic Chambers worked his way into its interior and, in a repeat of his first recovery, reached the remaining boy fitting him with helmet and lifejacket before setting off. At 7.54pm Mechanic Chambers emerged from the cave with the boy. Once again Helmsman Bradley manoeuvred the ILB to the cave entrance and Crew Members O’Neill and Weston recovered the boy into the ILB, laying him securely onto the deck before hauling Mechanic Chambers over the starboard sponson. Helmsman Bradley assessed the approaching swell and seeing a gap turned the ILB hard to port and applying full throttle cleared the rocks and proceeded directly to the ALB. 

At 8.08pm, the ILB manoeuvred alongside the starboard side of the ALB, where the guardrails had been broken in anticipation. Both the second boy and Mechanic Chambers, who had slumped exhausted aboard the ILB, were transferred to the ALB. Helmsman Bradley manoeuvred clear of the ALB, then Coxswain McAuley turned the ALB onto a north-easterly heading at 8 knots while the second boy was medically assessed. By 8.08pm both boys were aboard the rescue helicopter and were taken to Coleraine Causeway Hospital where they were treated for hypothermia and shock, but made a full recovery and were released the following day.

The ILB was declared re-fuelled and ready for service by 8.40pm and the ALB by 8.45pm.

Published in RNLI Lifeboats Team

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