Let us remember
The grounding of the Portrush RNLI Severn class all-weather lifeboat on rocks at Rathlin Island, off the coast of Co. Antrim, while trying to save three sailors sent a shiver of unwelcome memory down my spine: that of the appalling Penlee Lifeboat disaster. Thank goodness all those involved with the Portrush grounding were saved. But it is not always the case and to that end I think it’s worth re-telling the story of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster, here.
Just a week before Christmas 1981, the Dublin-registered coaster, Union Star, was on its maiden voyage from IJmuiden in the Netherlands to Arklow in Ireland, carrying a cargo of fertiliser. She carried a crew of five, including her captain Henry Morton, his wife, Dawn, and her two teenage daughters, who were on board to be together for Christmas.
The Union Star developed an engine fault approximately eight miles east of the Wolf Rock, on the south coast of Cornwall. She was unable to restart her engines, and assistance was offered by a tug, the Noord Holland, under the Lloyd’s Open Form salvage contract. Morton refused the offer, unwilling to pay an undetermined amount for salvage.
The fuel supply of the Union Star became contaminated by sea water and the weather continued to worsen, so she put out a distress signal to the Falmouth coastguard. Against 80 mph winds, gusting to 95 mph, Union Star was being driven onto the rocks of Boscawen Cove, near Lamorna. The conditions were so rough that the crew of the Royal Navy Sea King helicopter sent from RNAS Culdrose were unable to remove any of the eight on board.
So the lifeboat Solomon Browne, a wooden 47 feet Watson class lifeboat, crewed by eight experienced seamen, from the village of Mousehole. Only one man from each family was taken, due to the danger of the conditions.
As the Union Star was driven close to the rocky cliffs, Coxswain Trevelyan Richards took the lifeboat head on into the storm. The lifeboat made several attempts before getting alongside Union Star; at least twice it was thrown on the ship’s deck, and on another occasion slammed into its side. In mountainous seas, with the swell over 50 feet high, Solomon Browne retrieved four of the eight people on board the Union Star, who jumped out from its wheelhouse, before being forced to turn away from the ship. The lifeboat went back towards the Union Star for yet another attempt to rescue the remaining crew members; this proved fatal.
From that time, no more was seen of the Solomon Browne, nor heard from her radio. Her last message was: “We’ve got four men off, hang on, we have got four at the moment. There’s two left on board…”, at which point the radio went dead. A few moments later, her lights disappeared, at about the same time as Union Star keeled over.
Both vessels were lost with all hands. Of the 16 lives lost, eight bodies were eventually recovered, four from the 8 crew of the lifeboat and four from the Union Star. Wreckage from the Solomon Browne was found along the shore, and the Union Star lay capsized onto the rocks west of Tater Du Lighthouse.
The crew of Solomon Browne were:
William Trevelyan Richards (aged 56) (Coxswain)
James Stephen Madron (35) (Second Coxswain/Mechanic)
Nigel Brockman (43) (Assistant Mechanic, a fisherman)
John Blewett (43) (Emergency Mechanic, a telephone engineer)
Kevin Smith (23)
Barrie Torrie (33) (a fisherman)
Charles Greenhaugh (46) (landlord of the Ship Inn in Mousehole)
Gary Wallis (23)
The disaster prompted a massive public appeal for the benefit of the village of Mousehole, where the lifeboat was based and the home of the crew and their families, raising over £3 million. A formal inquiry in 1982 found that no person was to blame for the disaster, which was attributed to the severe weather conditions. However, under new legislation, the Coastguard was empowered to declare a Mayday and authorise salvage on behalf of a ship’s captain.
A reporter colleague of mine, Dave Newman, told me that of the lifeboat hull nothing much longer than a pencil box was found.