The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

About half a mile or so outside of Mousehole on the road towards Newlyn is Penlee Point, a small promontory, which to me marks the westernmost point of Mounts Bay. Until 1983 it was the home of the Penlee lifeboat, but today the lifeboat station remains as a memorial to a tragic event that happened on the evening of the 19th December 1981.

Mousehole always celebrates Christmas in a big way, and on the Saturday before Christmas, the bar in the Ship Inn was doing a brisk business as usual. The weather outside wasn’t great and although the sea was a bit rough, it wasn’t anything unusual, as pictures on the pub walls will verify.

One of the Pictures hanging on the wall in The Ship

At the same time as the locals were enjoying the festivities in The Ship, the 14,000-ton Dutch coaster Union Star was ploughing through heavy seas on her maiden voyage from Ijmuden in Holland to Arklow in the Republic of Ireland with a cargo of fertiliser. On board was captain Henry ‘Mick’ Moreton and four crew members. There were also three unofficial passengers, Moreton’s wife and two teenage stepdaughters. His explanation for them being aboard was that they were on a brief access visit from South Africa and he was determined that the family should be together for Christmas.

At 18.04 the Falmouth Coastguard received a call from the Union Star reporting an engine failure. It’s a fairly common occurrence, and as the boat’s position was given as eight miles east of the Wolf Rock there wasn’t any undue cause for concern. Even so, Moreton requested that a helicopter be on standby to take the three females off the ship should the need arise. The coastguard, although surprised that there were unofficial passengers on board the coaster, contacted RNAS Culdrose and asked them to stand by just in case. They also contacted the Penlee Lifeboat at the same time.

The Falmouth Coastguard at Pendennis Point below the castle
Culdrose Airfield on The Lizard

The Coastguard also messaged a salvage tug based in Penzance whose skipper then contacted the Union Star offering Moreton Lloyds Open Forum. This is a contract whereby the ship’s owners would have to pay a call-out fee whether the tug was needed or not. Moreton declined the offer, mainly because he thought he was going to be able to get his engine started again, but also because, as he told the coastguard, that the tug’s captain “was more interested in the money”. From the coastguard radio transcript, it was obvious that Moreton didn’t think that they were in any imminent danger.

At 18.33 the Union Star contacted the coastguard for an update on the weather forecast – and it wasn’t good. The southerly wind at Land’s End was currently Force 8 but rising to force 10 or 11 – and the engine still hadn’t been repaired.

Land's End

It wasn’t just the weather situation that was getting worse but also the circumstances. The reason for the engine failure had been found: Sea water had seeped into the fuel tanks making the engine inoperable, and to make matters even worse, the Land’s End Coastguard Station (which had a better view of the situation than Falmouth) reported that the Union Star was drifting towards the coast. At 19.00 the Falmouth Coastguard asked Culdrose to scramble a helicopter, but even then, it wasn’t considered an emergency.

It’s only a short distance between The Lizard and Land’s End, but by the time the Sea King helicopter had located the Union Star two miles off the coast near to the Tater Dhu lighthouse, the weather had deteriorated considerably.

An Old Picture I took of the Rugged Coastline not far from Tater Dhu

By now, wind speeds were reaching 90 mph and sea spray was hitting the helicopter at 400 ft, but a rescue attempt was still launched. At 20.00 a back-up generator was fired up by the Union Star to assist the helicopter winchman, but the helicopter pilot just couldn’t get close enough without risking his own crew.

At 20.24, after several brave attempts and almost being hit by the ship’s mast, the pilot aborted the rescue mission. Moreton advised that he was going to lay down anchor, which under the circumstances was an act of desperation because it meant that any sea-borne rescue attempt would be just as dangerous due to a lack of protection from the coaster.

A few minutes later, the salvage tug, Noord Holland, whose help was refused earlier, came to the scene but it would have been suicidal for any seaman to try and secure a tow rope. Waves were now reaching heights of up to 60 ft but there was one last ray of hope – the Penlee Lifeboat.

The Solomon Browne (courtesy of the RNLI)

The Solomon Browne lifeboat had been on stand-by, but with the inability of the helicopter and tug to effect a rescue, it contacted the Union Star at 20.47 to offer help. Moreton replied “The helicopter is having a bit of difficulty getting to us so if you could pop out, I’ll be very much obliged”

Launching down the slipway in a force 12 gale was extremely hazardous to say the least, but the crew of eight volunteers under the experienced coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, battled against huge waves and 90 knot winds in a race to get to the Union Star before it hit the rocky coast.

After one more attempt to drop a line by the helicopter, and with the coastline barely 500 yards away, the Solomon Browne moved in towards the coaster. At 20.54, and with the situation getting ever more serious Trevelyan Richards advised that all the crew be taken off, to which Moreton agreed. For the next half an hour the Solomon Browne made several valiant attempts to get alongside the ship, but with winds now reaching 100 mph, it was nigh on impossible: At one point, the lifeboat flipped over onto the coaster before sliding off stern-first back into the waves.

The picture below is a painting by Penzance artist, Ralph Curnow who was a member of the Penlee Lifeboat crew for eleven years.

Ralph Curnow's Painting of the Rescue Attempt

With the Union Star struggling to hold her position, and just 50 yards from the coastline, Trevelyan Richards managed to get the lifeboat alongside the stricken ship. From the helicopter, Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith could just make out people with fluorescent orange lifejackets running across the coaster’s deck towards the lifeboat where the crew were waiting to catch them as they jumped.

At 21.21 Falmouth Coastguard received a call from the Solomon Browne. “We got four men off – look, er, hang on – we got four off at the moment, er male and female. There’s two left on board”. There was a loud noise and the message ended.

Radio contact was lost, but the Solomon Browne wasn’t. The helicopter, which was on its way back to base, saw her heading back out to sea, presumably with all crew on board and four survivors from the Union Star. Guy Buurman on the Noord Holland tug however, reported that he could make out the Solomon Browne at 21.45 on the crest of a wave and “very close to shore”.

For the rest of the night, family and friends back in Mousehole were desperately hoping to hear something positive on their scanners, but all they got was Falmouth Coastguard saying “Can you hear us Trev? What is your position? Do you need any help? Shall we come out Trev?

It seems pretty certain that the Solomon Browne returned to try and save the remaining four people on the Union Star and go back to Mousehole with all 16 people safe and sound – but instead the Solomon Browne didn’t come back at all.

Even before morning light, debris was starting to come ashore including unmistakeable wreckage from the lifeboat, and lying upside down near the rocks was the wreck of the Union Star.

The Wreck of the Union Star (Courtesy of the RNLI)

On Christmas Eve, Coxswain Trevelyan Richards (aged 56) and Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman (43) were buried in Paul Church. Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI’s Gold medal for gallantry and Nigel Brockman the bronze medal, as were the rest of the crew. They were: –

James Madron (Aged 53, Second Coxswain and Mechanic)

John Blewett (43, Electrician and Emergency Mechanic)

Charles Greenhaugh (46, Landlord of The Ship Inn)

Kevin Smith (23, Merchant Seaman who was home on leave)

Barrie Torrie (33, Boatman)

Gary Wallis (23, Fisherman)

The bodies of Barrie Torrie, Kevin Smith and Gary Wallis were never found.

 

Those who perished on the Union Star were: –

Henry Moreton (Captain)

James Whittaker (Mate)

George Sedgwick (Engineer)

Anghositino Verressimo (Crew Member)

Manuel Lopes (Crew Member)

Henry Moreton’s Wife, Dawn

Dawn’s teenage daughters, Sharon and Deanne

The Crew Members of the Solomon Browne (courtesy of the Falmouth Packet)

The tragedy obviously hit Mousehole hard, but it didn’t stop villagers volunteering for a replacement to the Solomon Browne. In 1983, a new Arun Class design meant that its successor, named Mabel Alice, was unable to use the Penlee slipway, and so it was based in nearby Newlyn, although still retaining the same description of Penlee Lifeboat.

On the Mabel Alice’s first shout was Nigel Brockman’s son, Neil. He had been just 17 years old when the Solomon Browne made its final launch. Being a member of the crew, he sprinted down to the boathouse that fateful evening to join the rescue of the Union Star, but was turned away by Trevelyan Richards on the grounds that he would only allow one member from the same family to be onboard. Neil went on to become coxswain of the Mabel Alice and then the Ivan Ellen which replaced it. Like his father, he also received the RNLI’s bronze award for bravery, and retired from lifeboat service in 2008. Both his brother and his son also joined the Penlee Lifeboat crew.

The Ivan Ellen in Newlyn Harbour

I’ve been a regular visitor to Mousehole for many years, and as the story about the Brockman family shows, the sea is in the blood of those who live here.

I happened to be here one stormy night watching the waves crash over the harbour wall when I suddenly heard screams. It was difficult to make out exactly what was happening, but apparently a young woman had been down on the harbour attempting to move her car in case it got damaged by the storm. Before she was able to move it, a large wave came over the harbour wall and swept her straight into the harbour. I could just make out the silhouette of another person also going into the water, but this time it was a local man who saw what had happened and jumped in to save her. That’s the type of people they are down here. Totally fearless. The following morning, I could see why she wanted to move her car because those that had been left here and all been totally wrecked.

In a couple of weeks’ time, the Christmas lights will be turned on and will stay on until early in the New Year, but they will dim, as they always have on December 19th. In 1981 they were turned on by Charles Greenhaugh, landlord of the Ship Inn, two days before he joined the rest of the crew of the Solomon Browne on that terrible night. It’s been 40 years since those brave men gave their lives for others, but it still seems like it was only yesterday.

The old Penlee Lifeboat Station still stands in memory of the crew of the Solomon Browne, and although it isn’t generally open to the public, there is a small garden and memorial stone with the names of those who died.

In a statement to the RNLI by Sea King pilot Lt. Cdr Russell L Smith, an American officer on attachment at Culdrose, he says – “Throughout the entire rescue evolution the Penlee Crew never appeared to hesitate. After each time they were washed, blown or bumped away from the casualty the Penlee immediately commenced another run-in. Their spirit and dedication was amazing considering the horrific hurricane seas and the constant pounding they were taking. The greatest act of courage that I’ve ever seen, and am likely to ever see, was the penultimate courage showed by the Penlee when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescuing four people (sic)… they were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen”.

That says it all really!

Below is a clip of Seth Lakeman, a musician from West Devon who wrote this song in honour of the volunteers on the Solomon Browne. It was performed at the Minack Theatre which is less than six miles along the coast from Tater Dhu.

I’ve also included a YouTube video called The Cruel Sea. It’s an hour-long documentary produced by the BBC. I don’t suppose many people will bother to take a look at it, but if you’ve enjoyed this post, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy this terrific account of the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster. Just grab a glass of something and settle down for an hour and watch something worthwhile instead of Loose Women or whatever.

POSTED – NOVEMBER 2021

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23 thoughts on “The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

  1. Stuart Templeton

    Now that really is a tragedy Malc. For all the time I’ve spent down there I’d never heard that story before – and I’ve probably seen the old lifeboat station. Thank you for sharing it, you wrote about it beautifully!

    It made me wonder how bad that storm must have been, for the SAR Helicopter to turn back, those guys are renowned for their bravery. But what can you say about the RNLI – every single one of them is a hero and a national treasure, and this story shows us why, to sail boldly into the jaws of hell, in the hope of saving a life – that’s true courage. (btw – Alli’s dad used to be their treasurer)

    I hope you’re well, we were both a bit worried after seeing your other post. Keep your chin up, it’s people like you that make the world a better place!

    Right, now off to watch the Cruel sea (well actually it might be on Sunday, but I’ve already got it open on youtube.

    Cheers!

    Stuart.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you for your smashing comments Stuart. I really do appreciate them. I’ve explained to Alli that I might be going through a bit of a rough time healthwise at the moment but I don’t intend leaving everybody in peace just yet 😊

      The Penlee tragedy shows, as you quite rightly say, that these people are made of stronger stuff than most of us, and I didn’t realise that Alli’s dad was treasurer for the organisation. That must have been a task in itself.

      I hope you enjoy watching the Cruel Sea. The BBC are getting a fair bit of stick at the moment, but they’ve always been good at making documentaries like these. I hope you’re keeping well, and that Alli’s not flogging you to death with all the decorating 😊

      Reply
  2. Alli Templeton

    A terrible tragedy indeed, Malc, yet one you relate so well. You do justice to the people who lost their lives and family members that dreadful December night. How touching that they still dim the Christmas lights on the anniversary. I love the Seth Lakeman song and I am going to watch the whole documentary as your post has been so inspiring, and its important to remember and mark acts of tragic heroicism whenever they occur. Such people deserve to have their stories told and never forgotten, and you have written a sensitive, eloquent and moving account that will certainly help keep their memories alive. Well done. Here’s to them…

    And just for the record, I never watch Loose Women. Give me a good documentary any day. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I think that writing about topics like this should to be done with compassion as well as facts Alli, and your comments make me feel as though I’ve pretty well managed to achieve the right balance, so a big thank you for that. It means so much.

      Seth Lakeman is a popular folk singer down here as he often writes songs about local stories, and I hope you do watch ‘The Cruel Sea’ as it’s an excellent account of the tragedy.

      Not only have you managed to put a smile on my face by enjoying this post, but also telling me that you don’t watch Loose Women 😊 There’s hope for the world yet 😊

      As you know only too well Alli, I really value your support, so thank you once again 😊

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        You have achieved the balance perfectly, Malc, as you always do. I’m watching the Cruel Sea now, and it is, indeed, an excellent account of that terrible night. That storm seems to have been particularly vicious and it’s easy to see why the tragedy is etched into the fabric of the place.

        And I’m always glad to have put a smile on your face – particularly by saying I don’t watch Loose Women – can’t stand it! 😀

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          I’m glad to hear that you’re watching the Cruel Sea Alli. I think it’s a good documentary that explains things far better than I can, and it will show that I haven’t embellished the facts in any way. As for Loose Women, I have to admit that I did watch a part of a programme once – just the once 😊

          Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you Luisa. I got to know some of the family and friends of the deceased (not well I hasten to add), so I’ve tried hard to make sure there were no errors 🙂

      Reply
  3. equipsblog

    Malc, you have a real knack for this. I think this piece is the best I’ve read to date. You can feel the emotion in each word. How people find the courage to do this is probably beyond me. Well done, Malc!
    Eternal Father, strong to save,
    Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
    Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
    Its own appointed limits keep,
    O hear us when we cry to thee
    For those in peril on the sea!

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you so much for those supportive words Pat, and the words of that hymn say it all don’t they?

      Reply
  4. valenciartist

    A very well written narrative of this tragedy at sea, like so many others. The sea is always invincible and all who sail know that, destiny holds the reins and God help these men and women to always return safely home. You’ve some beautiful photographs and the one showing the rough shore is very indicative of how rough the waves must have been that night. As having been a US Coast Guard Reserve officer, I know how dangerous things can get out at sea and how Guardsmen risk their lives to rescue others. For me, the Coast Guard and those others that dedicate themselves to rescue others are special people. This was a very interesting post, a bit different from some of your other ones, but I read it with much interest and felt like I had been transported to those very scary and tragic moments.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Francesc .I’m sure you can equate with these events more than most, so I’m especially pleased to hear that you found it interesting. Only those that were involved really know how scary it must have been, but having spoken to some of those who were left behind, I can tell you that it wasn’t too good for them either.

      Reply
      1. valenciartist

        I am sure that it wasn’t. The sea can be the love of the sailors but also their darkest nightmare. Always a pleasure reading your articles and enjoying your photographs.

        Reply
  5. Eunice

    A very well written account of a terrible tragedy Malc, the paragraph immediately above the Christmas lights photo brought a lump to my throat. I don’t donate to many charities but I do to the RNLI – those men (and women) volunteers do an incredible job.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Eunice – if ‘enjoy’ is the right word. I don’t watch much TV, but I always watch ‘Saving Lives at Sea’. They are truly remarkable people indeed.

      Reply

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