Lifeboatman who saved 300 people retires from sea - and the limelight

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The Independent Online

A lifeboatman who saved the lives of at least 300 people and was awarded the service's equivalent of the Victoria Cross retired on Friday after 27 years spent braving the North Sea.

Coxswain Brian Bevan, 55, would be rejected if he applied to join the Royal National Lifeboat Institution today. The ability to swim 100 metres fully clothed is now a prerequisite – and he gave up learning to swim after he was thrown in at the deep end and nearly drowned in a prank on a school swimming trip in the 1950s. He observed: "You certainly don't need to swim to man the lifeboat. Your lifejacket keeps you afloat."

Pinpoint timing and a cool head helped Mr Bevan to earn the RNLI Gold Medal during a mission in a force 10 storm on Valentine's Day 22 years ago.

His Humber team had been called to rescue the crew of a Panamanian freighter, the Revi, which was sinking 35 miles off Spurn Head.

He recalled: "It would have been disastrous to have a ship like the Revi rising on 35ft waves and come crashing down on us."

Mr Bevan had to snatch moments amid the relentless wind and rain when both vessels might be steady enough for the other crew to jump ship. After 35 attempts spread over 30 minutes, only two men had managed to transfer. Then Mr Bevan saw the Revi's captain hanging over the ship's rail, waiting to jump from his 500-ton vessel, which was almost submerged. The lifeboat made 10 unsuccessful attempts to reach him, but then the captain disappeared, apparently lost. Mr Bevan said: "When the sea cleared he was still there hanging on to a rail at the stern. Within five minutes of us reaching him, the vessel had sunk."

The next day brought another dangerous rescue, of the crew of Savinesti, a Romanian cargo ship, earning Mr Bevan a Bronze Medal to go with his gold – and a Silver Medal earned the year before, in 1978. He remains the only lifeboatman to receive the bronze, silver and gold medals at a single ceremony. He acquired celebrity status, appearing on ITV's This Is Your Life in 1980, and was awarded an honorary fellowship at the University of Humberside.

Mr Bevan, who served with Britain's only remaining full-time crew at Spurn, on standby 24 hours a day and off duty only 24 hours a week, is now planning a retirement holiday in Spain. "It'll be hard to see the end of all this," he said.

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