on the 19th of December, 1981 the Penlee Lifeboat, Solomon Browne, set out, with eight of Mousehole’s men, to aid a stricken vessel, never to return.
Although 36 years have now passed, the tragedy still plays in the minds of many, especially on the anniversary of that ill-fated day.
A cargo-carrying coaster, the Union Star, was on her maiden voyage between Holland and Ireland that stormy December day.
The eight people on board were Henry Moreton, her captain, a further 4 crew members, and Moreton’s wife along with her two teenage daughters.
A few miles off Land’s End, near the Wolf Rock lighthouse, the ship’s engine cut out and Moreton put out the news on the radio.
A tug boat, the Noord Holland, offered help and, indeed, started out towards the stricken boat, but the captain refused the assistance owing to the financial implications of being salvaged.
New regulations were put into place meaning that, should the same type of incident happen today, then the Captain would not be allowed to refuse assistance owing to the ‘financial implications’ of being towed back out to sea by a tug.
As the storm worsened, and still unable to start the engines, Moreton put out a distress call to the Falmouth coastguard as his ship was washed increasingly closer to the jagged rocks off the southern Cornish coast.
In gusts of nearly 100 miles an hour and average wind of around 80, a Sea King helicopter was dispatched from RNAS Culdrose but, such was the ferocious state of the sea, it was unable to lift a single soul to safety.
By this point the tug was also in the vicinity, but Moreton held out and, in any case, the Union Star was now in such a position near the coast, in waves upwards of 50 feet, that the tug’s skipper felt it impossible to get close enough to establish a link and was unwilling to risk the lives of his 11 crew in the attempt.
At this point, the Solomon Browne, the wooden 47’ lifeboat stationed at Penlee Point near Mousehole, raced down its slipway into the raging seas of Mount’s Bay.
Aboard were eight men, all volunteers from the village of Mousehole, under the command of coxswain Trevelyan Richards.
He had chosen his crew carefully, taking the most able seamen and, crucially, only one member of each family; as was the norm on perilous call outs such as this.
Unlike the tug, the Solomon Browne steamed in towards the stricken vessel and struggled for some time to get alongside it.
The boiling sea tossed the lifeboat around, sometimes even landing her on the deck of the Union Star.
In the darkness and chaos of the enormous swell four people eventually managed to clamber aboard, however it was the lifeboat men’s selfless return to rescue the remaining four that proved fatal.
It was at exactly this moment that radio contact with the Penlee Lifeboat was lost, and one can only surmise what happened next.
All hands were lost, and only four bodies eventually found.
The same was true of the Union Star.
The lost crew of the Solomon Browne:
- Trevelyan Richards (56) (Coxswain)
- James Stephen Madron (35) (2nd Coxswain/Mechanic)
- Nigel Brockman (43) (Asst Mechanic, fisherman)
- John Blewett (43) (Emergency Mechanic, telephone engineer)
- Kevin Smith (23)
- Barrie Torrie (33) (fisherman)
- Charles Greenhaugh (46) (landlord of Ship Inn, Mousehole)
- Gary Wallis (23)
Lieutenant Commander Smith, the pilot of the Royal Navy helicopter who had to turn back owing to the weather conditions summed it up when he said at the time:
“[it was] the greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see …
“They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”
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