1981: Penlee lifeboat disaster

On 19 December 1981, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne were lost attempting to rescue the crew and passengers onboard a stricken coaster. 
Penlee's Solomon Browne lifeboat in  0973

Photo: Nigel De Wallens

Penlee’s Solomon Browne lifeboat in 1973

On a stormy December evening, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne battled heavy seas and hurricane force winds to reach the Union Star, a stricken coaster being swept towards the coast of Cornwall.

After several attempts to get alongside the coaster, the lifeboat crew rescued four of the eight people on board. But rather than turn back to shore, they made a final heroic rescue attempt - and all radio contact was lost.

Powerful winds and a treacherous coastline

The Union Star was on her maiden voyage, sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of fertilisers.

She carried a crew of four, as well as Captain Henry Morton, his wife and two teenage stepdaughters, who had been picked up on a stop so that they could be together for the holidays.

At 6pm on 19 December 1981, disaster struck. The Falmouth Coastguard received a call from the Union Star: her engines had failed and would not restart. There was a fierce storm underway and the rough seas and powerful winds were blowing the coaster towards the treacherous Cornish coastline.

In Mousehole, word spread that the lifeboat may be needed and Penlee’s Solomon Browne was put on standby. A dozen men answered the call for crew, but only eight were needed.

A rescue under such severe conditions would be difficult and Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards chose the best crew for the task:

  • Second Coxswain and Mechanic James Madron
  • Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman
  • Emergency Mechanic John Blewett
  • Crew Member Charles Greenhaugh
  • Crew Member Kevin Smith
  • Crew Member Barrie Torrie
  • Crew Member Gary Wallis.

A Sea King helicopter

One of the Union Star’s fuel tanks had filled with water, making an engine restart impossible. The coaster was drifting dangerously close to the shore, so the Coastguard called in an RNAS Sea King helicopter to rescue the crew.

The coaster was rolling and pitching on the wild seas, so violently that her mast threatened to collide with the helicopter overheard.

The aircrew decided it had become too dangerous to continue the rescue mission – the Union Star’s mast was too close and their line wasn’t long enough to reach the deck from further away.

The coaster had drifted to just 2 miles from the perilous coastline, so the Solomon Browne was finally launched, 2 hours after the first alert.

The greatest act of courage

The helicopter stood by as Penlee’s 14m Watson class wooden lifeboat launched into the hurricane force 12 gale, fighting against 90-knot winds and 18m waves.

The powerless Union Star had already lost one anchor, but was desperately trying to hold her position as the lifeboat fought the harsh breaking seas to come alongside it.

The Solomon Browne struck against the side of the coaster and the lifeboat crew stood against the railings, throwing lines across to pull themselves alongside.

The lifeboat valiantly battled to come alongside the coaster for half an hour. At one point, an enormous wave picked up the lifeboat and dropped it on the deck of the Union Star. Seconds later, she slid off the deck and Coxswain Trevelyan Richards skilfully manoeuvred her alongside the coaster once more. They were just 275m from the coastline.

From the helicopter, Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith saw dark shadows of people in fluorescent orange lifejackets run across the deck from the wheelhouse to the lifeboat, where the crew were waiting to catch them as they jumped.

The Solomon Browne radioed back to the Coastguard: ‘we’ve got four off’ and the helicopter turned back to base, assuming the lifeboat would head to shore.

But the lifeboat decided to make a final rescue attempt – and after that point, all radio contact was lost.

The search

The Coastguard radioed back to the lifeboat, but there was no response. Ten minutes later, the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared.

The helicopter refuelled and launched once more.  Lifeboats from Sennen Cove, The Lizard and St Mary’s were also sent to help their colleagues, but their searches were unsuccessful.

At daybreak, the Union Star was found capsized on the rocks by Tater Du Lighthouse and wreck debris from the lifeboat began to wash ashore.

The wreck of the Union Star
The wreck of the Union Star

Remembering the crew

This disaster was the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew in action.

It happened just days after St Peter Port lifeboat volunteers braved similar hurricane conditions to rescue 29 people from the cargo ship Bonita.

Our commemorative film pays tribute to all involved in both rescue missions.

Coxswain Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI’s Gold Medal for Gallantry and the rest of the crew were awarded Bronze Medals.

The disaster inspired a public appeal for the village of Mousehole, which raised over £3 million – the equivalent of £10 million by today’s standards.

Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith, the pilot of the Sea King helicopter, recounted:

‘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] …

‘They were truly the bravest eight men I've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.’

Every year on 19 December, the Christmas lights at Mousehole are dimmed between 8 and 9pm in memory of the 16 people who lost their lives, leaving just the Cross and Angels shining down across the village and out to sea.

The cross and angels at Mousehole shining across the village and out to sea in memory of the lives lost in the Penlee lifeboat disaster in 19981
The Cross and Angels at Mousehole shining across the village and out to sea in memory of the lives lost in the Penlee lifeboat disaster in 1981

And the names of the eight Penlee crew members who valiantly fought to save those onboard the Union Star are inscribed on the RNLI Memorial in Poole.