They Made the Ultimate Sacrifice: The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

Built in Ringkøbing on the West coast of Denmark and Launched in 1981 the Union Star was an Irish registered 935 tonne 70 metre mini-bulk carrier designed for use in coastal waters. On the 19th of December 1981 she was on her maiden voyage carrying fertiliser from the Netherlands to Arklow in Ireland when disaster struck. The weather off the south west coast of England was horrendous, with storm force winds whipping up the seas and generating huge swells. Struggling in heavy seas the Union Star suddenly lost power in her main engine leaving the ship drifting uncontrollably towards the Cornwalls south coast, with its treacherous reefs and razor sharp rocks that have been the final resting place for many unfortunate vessels throughout history. To make matters worse for Skipper Henry Moreton, his wife and teenage step daughters had boarded the vessel during an unplanned stop off in Essex so that they could spend Christmas together.

Original Penlee Lifeboat Station

In the small fishing village of Mousehole the community was preparing for Christmas, the locals were holding a celebration in the local pub for a tradition known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve. The weather outside was worsening, and the wind was gaining in strength. Word soon got around that the lifeboat might be needed, and the crew were put on standby. Meanwhile a Royal Navy rescue helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose was heading out to the Union Star to attempt to take the crew off the vessel of required.

Mousehole, Cornwall

On board the Union Star the crew had discovered that sea water had leaked into the fuel tanks and restarting the engines would be impossible. The captain had already refused help from a Dutch tug as they wanted him to enter into a contract known as a Lloyd’s open form committing the owners of the vessel to pay salvage costs. It was now dawning on the Captain that the crew would need taking off, and he requested that the Royal Navy crew attempt to winch his wife and step daughters off the heaving deck. Despite several high risk attempts, the helicopter crew could not safely get a winch man onto the deck, and the vessel was now perilously close to the shore. There was no more they could do other than standby and observe; the lifeboat would need to be launched.

The Solomon Browne

Back in Mousehole the crew of the Solomon Browne, Penlee Lifeboat Station’s all weather Watson-class lifeboat, were alerted and raced to the station at Penlee Point. Knowing the kind of conditions they were facing the Skipper Trevelyan Richards chose his very best crew members, also making the decision to leave behind Neil Brockman, the son of assistant mechanic Nigel Brockman because he was reluctant to take two members of the same family out in such conditions. Getting the Lifeboat to sea at all was a masterful piece of seamanship.

Back at the scene, the Union Star was now almost upon the rocks; a helicopter rescue was out of the question now, and the fate of the Union Star now depended entirely on the crew of the Solomon Browne. The lifeboat arrived on scene as the Union Star battled desperately to hold her position. Richards, in another remarkable feat of seamanship managed to get the lifeboat alongside the Union Star, which was pitching and rolling heavily in now hurricane force winds; at one point the lifeboat was lifted completely out of the water and onto the deck of the stricken coaster. Undeterred the brave crew of the Solomon Browne managed to get four of the eight people off the coaster and on to the lifeboat. At this point, assuming that the lifeboat would take the four survivors ashore, the Royal Navy helicopter, now low on fuel, headed back to base, but Richards decided to make one last attempt to get the remaining four people off the stricken cargo ship. The crew of the lifeboat made one final radio call which was cut short; this was the last time anyone heard from the crew of the Solomon Browne.

Wreck of the Union Star

All around Britain’s coast the brave men and women of the RNLI are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ready to respond at a moments notice to help those in peril on the sea. They volunteer to put their lives on the line for others.

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