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What the bleep, it's a crisis at sea

Not all nursery school children have the thrill of seeing their classroom assistant dash off in the middle of lessons to save lives. But for Aileen Jones's pupils at Nottage primary school in Porthcawl, the sound of the pager's insistent bleeping has become part of life.

Her courage in gale-force winds and a three-metre swell last August has earned her the bronze medal for gallantry from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution - the first woman in 116 years to be given a bravery award by the RNLI.

The 42-year-old mother-of-two needed all her skill to bring the skipper and an injured fisherman to safety after their boat, the Gower Pride, suffered engine failure.

With a modesty others say is typical, Mrs Jones plays down her bravery that day, and during her 10 years as a lifeboat crew member. "When you're out on a shout the adrenaline kicks in, and for the most part you're too busy doing your job to think about anything else," she says.

"Only on the occasions when the sea conditions are exceptionally bad, do you get frightened."

Kevin Brady, head of Nottage primary, says the Aileen he sees in class is very different from the woman who faces the elements at the helm of a lifeboat.

"Aileen is very gentle and shy. She looks after the nursery pupils who are coming to school for the first time. It can be an emotional experience for them and their parents, but Aileen treats everyone with great empathy."

He adds: "She's very small in terms of build, so it's hard to imagine her having the physical strength to helm a boat in the kinds of conditions that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up."

But Mrs Jones says: "We work as a team on the boat and we work as a team in class. Both roles demand good communication skills, diplomacy and the ability to get on with people.

"And in both jobs it's important to create a healthy working environment as conflict gets in the way of doing what's important."

Extra-curricular maritime activity is a passion for her family. Her elder sister, Alison Missen, who is a classroom assistant at the same school, is an auxiliary coastguard.

Mrs Jones's husband is Porthcawl lifeboat's senior helmsman, her two nephews are on the crew, and now daughter Frances, 17, is doing her probationary year as a crew member.

And it is predicted that son Dan, 14, will soon follow in the family's aquatic footsteps.

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