Alumni Profiles

Surfboard Savior

The wind sent gray clouds scudding across the sky and whipped the surface of the English Channel into eight-foot waves that smashed onto the wide expanse of Bantham Beach. At times, the breeze gusted to 30 knots, shearing off the tops of waves. The air was as cold as the water--40 degrees. "It was," says Brian Clavin '77, "a perfect day."

Clavin, a surfer and the only American ever to be a member of Britain's Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), likes what he calls "a grumpy bit of water." On that Christmas afternoon in 2000, he and a friend, Will Bees, had been surfing alone for an hour when they were joined by a man who launched his new sailboard and then went "screaming out to sea." The pair kept an eye on the windsurfer, who was soon more than a mile-and-a-half from the beach and clearly struggling.

Clavin '77

"That guy is not coming back," Clavin told his friend. "We'd better go after him." The tide and wind were carrying the man out to sea at the rate of a mile an hour. "I can't paddle that far," Bees said. So, while Clavin, who had been training to paddle across the English Channel to raise money for charity, set out after the windsurfer, Bees paddled to shore to call the RNLI and Coast Guard.

After 45 minutes of hard paddling, Clavin caught up with the windsurfer more than three miles from the beach. The Devon coast was just a gray line in the mist behind him. The windsurfer was in terrible shape, barely hanging onto the board. Hypothermia had set in, and the man was disoriented and shaking uncontrollably. Clavin lashed his own board to the sailboard and stayed in the water with the young man, whose name was Matt, waiting for help. For two hours, Clavin talked to Matt, trying to keep him awake, as the wind and waves pushed them farther from land. "I remember thinking, 'This might not have been a good idea,'" he says. At last he heard the clack-clack of chopper blades and saw a yellow helicopter emerge from the mist. The RNLI lifeboat from Clavin's adopted hometown of Salcombe was not far behind. The helicopter lowered a man with a harness to pick Matt up and flew him to safety, while Clavin opted to "go back with my mates" in the Salcombe lifeboat.

Matt is just one of more than 135,000 people the RNLI has rescued since the organization was founded in 1824. Each year the RNLI launches its lifeboats nearly 6,300 times, often in gale-force winds, from its 224 stations and rescues some 6,400 people.

For the past two years, Clavin has been one of the 4,500 men and women who volunteer to crew on the lifeboats. His historic invitation to join resulted from a casual conversation with the Salcombe station coxswain who stopped him on the street one day. "They had sometimes passed me when they were going out on rescues in pretty extreme conditions when I was the sole person surfing out on the (sand) bar more than a mile from shore, I think they thought I might be kinda useful," he says. ~

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