Having lost consciousness, it was only a matter of time before his life was also lost.
However, 50 years on from that terrible moment on December 23, 1970, the now 71-year-old and very much alive Stephen has written a letter to the lifeboat station whose crew came to his rescue within minutes, getting him breathing again by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and saving his life.
“I've had 50 years of the happiest possible marriage, three sons and five grandchildren. All in all I've been able to live a wonderful life, but only because of the bravery of one man, the skill of another and the dedication and courage of the crew of the Dunbar lifeboat. I owe you everything,” the writer and retired headteacher said in the letter.
His is a life that all too easily might never have been lived and a profound demonstration of the value of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. And his is just one life of more than 143,000 saved by the volunteers of RNLI since it was founded in 1824.
Given its scale and the importance of its work, many assume that the RNLI must be a public body, much like the police, fire brigade or ambulance service, but it is a charity with volunteers making up 95 per cent of the organisation.
“We are a charity founded upon and driven by our values of selflessness, courage, dependability and trustworthiness, with volunteers at our heart. Values shared by generations of supporters like you who have powered our lifesaving work through your kindness and generosity for almost 200 years,” says the RNLI website.
It’s hard to think of many better examples of humanity at its finest than people who willingly put their own lives at risk to save others for no reward – save for priceless moments like an extraordinary letter from an extremely grateful man who came so close to death at the age of just 21 but who was instead able to have a rich and fulfilled life.