Penlee lifeboat disaster
|Date||19 December 1981 (evening)|
|Location||Mount's Bay, Cornwall, England|
|8 Solomon Browne lifeboat crew lost|
|8 Union Star crew and passengers lost|
|No survivors from either vessel|
The Penlee lifeboat disaster occurred on 19 December 1981 off the coast of Cornwall, England. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat Solomon Browne, based at the Penlee Lifeboat Station near Mousehole, went to the aid of the vessel Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas. After the lifeboat had rescued four people, both vessels were lost with all hands; sixteen people died, including eight volunteer lifeboatmen.
MV Union Star
The MV Union Star, a mini-bulk carrier registered in Dublin, had sailed from IJmuiden in the Netherlands with on December 17 a cargo of fertiliser for its maiden voyage to Arklow, Ireland. It was carrying a crew of five: Captain Henry Morton, Mate James Whittaker, Engineer George Sedgwick, Crewman Anghostino Verressimo, and Crewman Manuel Lopes. Also on board were Morton's wife Dawn and his teenage stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne, who had been picked up at an unauthorised call at Brightlingsea in Essex.
Near the south coast of Cornwall, 8 miles (13 km) east of the Wolf Rock, the ship's engines failed. The crew was unable to restart them but did not make a mayday call. Assistance was offered by a tug, the Noord Holland, under the Lloyd's Open Form salvage contract; Morton initially refused the offer, but accepted after consulting his owners. Winds were gusting at up to 90 knots (100 mph; 170 km/h) – hurricane, force 12 on the Beaufort scale – with waves up to 60 feet (18 m) high. The powerless ship was blown across Mount's Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove, near Lamorna.
FAA Sea King helicopter
As the ship was close to shore, the Coastguard at Falmouth summoned a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron (who were providing cover for 771 Naval Air Squadron), RNAS Culdrose. It used the call sign "Rescue 80" during the mission. The aircraft was flown that night by United States Navy exchange-pilot LCDR Russell Smith, assisted by Lt Steve Marlow, S/Lt Kenneth Doherty and Leading Aircrewman Martin Kennie of the Royal Navy. They were unable to winch anyone off the ship as the wind was too violent.
RNLB Solomon Browne
The Coastguard had difficulties contacting the secretary of the nearest lifeboat station, Penlee Lifeboat Station at Mousehole on the west side of the bay. They eventually contacted Coxswain Trevelyan Richards and asked him to put the lifeboat on standby in case the helicopter rescue failed. He summoned the lifeboat's volunteer crew and picked seven men to accompany him in the lifeboat: Second Coxswain and Mechanic Stephen Madron, Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman, Emergency Mechanic John Blewett, and crewmembers Charlie Greenhaugh, Kevin Smith, Barrie Torrie and Gary Wallis. Richards refused to take Nigel's son Neil, as he would not take two members of the same family.
The lifeboat was the RNLB Solomon Browne, a wooden 47-foot (14 m) Watson-class boat built in 1960 and capable of 9 knots (17 km/h). The lifeboat was named after Quaker Solomon Browne of Landrake following a bequest presented by his daughters. It launched at 8:12 pm and headed out through the storm to the drifting Union Star. After it had made several attempts to get alongside, four people jumped across to the lifeboat. It reported: "we got four ... off ... male and female. There's two left on board." This was the last heard from either vessel. Ten minutes later, the lifeboat's lights disappeared.
Lt Cdr Smith USN, the pilot of the rescue helicopter, later reported that:
The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty's hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.
Lifeboats were summoned from Sennen Cove, The Lizard and St Mary's to try to help their colleagues from Penlee. The Sennen Cove Lifeboat found it impossible to make headway round Land's End. The Lizard Lifeboat found a serious hole in its hull when it finally returned to its slipway after a fruitless search.
In the aftermath of the disaster, wreckage from the Solomon Browne was found along the shore, and the Union Star lay capsized onto the rocks, west of Tater Du Lighthouse. Some of the 16 bodies were never recovered.
The inquiry into the disaster determined that the loss of the Union Star and its crew was because of:
- the irreparable failure of the ship's engines due to contamination of fuel by sea water while off a dangerous lee shore;
- the extreme severity of the weather, wind and sea; and
- the capsize of the vessel on or shortly after stranding.
The loss of the Solomon Browne was:
in consequence of the persistent and heroic endeavours by the coxswain and his crew to save the lives of all from the Union Star. Such heroism enhances the highest traditions of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in whose service they gave their lives.
Coxswain Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI's gold medal, while the remainder of the crew were all posthumously awarded bronze medals. The station itself was awarded a gold medal service plaque. The disaster prompted a massive public appeal for the benefit of the village of Mousehole which raised over £3 million (equivalent to £12.2 million in 2021), although there was an outcry when the government tried to tax the donations.
Two nights before the disaster, Charlie Greenhaugh, who in civilian life was the landlord of the Ship Inn on the quayside in Mousehole, had turned on the village's Christmas lights. After the storm the lights were left off but three days later his widow Mary asked for them to be repaired and lit again. The village has been lit up each December since then, but on the anniversary of the disaster they are turned off at 8:00 pm for an hour as an act of remembrance. A plaque was also erected on the Ship Inn on behalf of the tenants, managers, directors and employees of the St Austell Brewery, the pub's owner.
Within a day of the disaster enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new lifeboat crew. In 1983 a new lifeboat station (still known as 'Penlee') was opened nearby at Newlyn where a faster, larger boat could be kept moored afloat in the harbour. Neil Brockman later became the coxswain of the station's Severn-class lifeboat. The old boathouse at Penlee Point with its slipway is kept the same as it was when the lifeboat launched and a memorial garden was created beside it in 1985 to commemorate the crew of the Solomon Browne.
The Sea King helicopter involved in the rescue attempt is today preserved at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton, primarily because it had been flown by Prince Andrew, Duke of York during the Falklands War.
This section needs additional citations for verification. (December 2017)
The disaster has been the subject of several songs. English folk singer and songwriter Seth Lakeman wrote the song "Solomon Browne", which appears on his 2008 album Poor Man's Heaven. The CD reissue of the Anthony Phillips' album Invisible Men includes "The Ballad of Penlee" about the incident. Paul Sirman, a Kentish folk artist who specialises in songs of the sea recorded the incident in his song "Solomon Browne" which appears on his album One For All. Kimber's Men, a sea shanty group, recorded "Don't Take The Heroes" on their CD of the same name. Local band Bates Motel based in Hayle included a song "The Last Wave", about the disaster on their album Anorak.
In 2015, Cornish-American singer-songwriter Jim Wearne's album Half Alive in Wallaroo featured the track "The Boys of Penlee", written by fellow Cornish bard Craig Weatherhill, and featuring Weatherhill playing mellotron whose haunting choir sound ends the song with the line "For those in peril on the sea", from the popular sailors' hymn. Simon Dobson wrote a test piece for brass band entitled "Penlee" about the incident.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary, a docudrama, Solomon Browne, written and narrated by Callum Mitchell and featuring recorded testimonies from relatives of some of the lifeboat crew, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 20 December 2021.
Also in December 2021 Mousehole FC also opened their new stand named "The Solomon Browne Stand".
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