October 15, 2018 at 8:27 am #2284
The older I get the more disenchanted I become with my fellow humans. I look at the dishonesty, greed, hate and stupidity that seem to fill the news and I despair. One reason I live in a small village halfway up a South Welsh mountain is to get away from all the shit. But in the increasing misanthropy of my old age there is still one group of people that has my unqualified admiration and respect. The lifeboatmen.
The mere fact that the RNLI is still able to exist entirely on voluntary contributions is a comforting sign that all is not yet lost in this increasingly greedy and selfish world, but the real wonder is that all the crews are unpaid volunteers. Well, not quite. One member of each crew, the engineer whose job is to maintain the boat, is full-time, and there is one station, Spurn Point on the Humber, which is so isolated that the crew have to live on-station, but that’s it. All the others give their time, with selfless dedication, steadfast skill and sometimes incredible courage, to help people in distress off our coasts, simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. They are almost invariably quiet, modest people. Daredevils, egotists and braggarts don’t last long in a lifeboat crew.
I was reminded of all this the other night when I came upon a YouTube post of a BBC documentary made in 2006 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Britain’s last major lifeboat disaster, the Penlee disaster of 1981. With advances in boat design and in safety and communications technology, lifeboat disasters have become thankfully rare in modern times, and this one is a story of high drama and tragedy.
At 1804 on 19 December 1981, in steadily worsening weather, the Coastguard station at Falmouth received a radio message from the 1,400-ton coaster Union Star. The Union Star was brand-new, only a few days old, and was on her maiden voyage carrying fertiliser from the Dutch port of IJmuiden to Arklow in the Irish Republic. The ship had a crew of only five, but there were eight people on board. Captain Henry ‘Mick’ Morton had wanted his wife and two teenage stepdaughters with him for Christmas and, refused permission by the shipowners, had stopped off at an East Coast port and picked them up anyway.
Morton’s message was to report total engine failure, and he gave his position as near the Wolf Rock, eight miles south of Land’s End. It was an information call, not a request for assistance. Morton’s crew were working to try to restart the engines, and he didn’t believe his ship was in any danger. He only asked for a helicopter to be put on standby in case his wife and children needed to be taken off.
But the Coastguard controller wanted to be on the safe side. He did more than alert the Royal Naval Air Station at Culrose. He also alerted a salvage tug, the Noord Holland, at its base in Penzance, and Trevelyan Richards, the coxswain of the Penlee lifeboat. Penlee lifeboat station was a mile north along the coast from the fishing village of Mousehole and Richards, like all the crew, lived in the village.
These were precautionary measures only. Although the weather was building up to a full-blown storm and the drifting Union Star was being pushed towards the Cornish coast, her crew were still hoping to get her engines started and no one considered the situation to be an emergency.
So when the caption of the Noord Holland, Guy Buurman, called the Union Star to offer a tow under Lloyds’ standard salvage conditions and Morton rejected the offer, it wasn’t quite such a foolhardy decision as it might appear. Morton had his owners to consider, and he knew they would take a dim view of him wasting their money on unnecessary salvage charges. Buurman put to sea anyway. There was still a chance he might be able to do some business.
But around 1900 the game changed. The Coastguard had opened their lookout point at Gwennap Head to get a precise radar fix on the Union Star’s position, and found to their horror that it was two-and-a-half miles further north – and nearer the coast – than Morton had thought. And Morton found the cause of his engine failure. The fuel in the Union Star’s tanks had been contaminated by seawater. There was no chance of restarting the engines, and the ship was being blown helplessly towards the rocks at Boscawen Point. The Coastguard asked RNAS Culrose to scramble.
At 1937 a Sea King helicopter took off from Culrose, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith, an American on exchange from the US Navy. As they flew across Mount’s Bay the wind was gusting up to 90mph – Force 12 on the Beaufort Scale, Hurricane Force – the waves were peaking at 50-60 feet, and the chopper, at an altitude of 400 feet, was being hit by sea spray. Buurman, on the tug, later said they were the worst conditions he’d ever seen.
When the Sea King’s crew spotted the Union Star at 1950 it was only two miles from the rocks and drifting closer with each minute. Time was perilously short.
With great skill and bravery, Smith made attempt after attempt to bring his helicopter close enough for his crew to throw a line down to the stricken ship, but the conditions defeated him. The Union Star’s motion was so violent that the Sea King was in danger of being swatted out of the sky by its mast, and after two close calls he had to give it up. It was time to call out the Penlee lifeboat.
The villagers of Mousehole traditionally like to make a big occasion out of Christmas. Coloured lights were strung along the streets, and in the Ship Inn on the harbour-front, whose landlord, Charlie Greenhaugh, was himself a member of the crew, some of the lifeboatmen were having an early celebration. When the call came they all dropped what they were doing and hurried to the lifeboat station.
The Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne (RNLI boats are named after the people or organisations who have contributed most to their cost), was one of the last iterations of the traditional double-ended, wood-built Watson type. 47 feet long with an enclosed wheelhouse, it had a speed of nine knots – traditional lifeboats were built for seaworthiness and strength rather than speed. It was also launched in the traditional way, down a slipway from a raised boathouse.
The atrocious conditions hadn’t deterred more volunteers from arriving at the boathouse than were needed in the boat. One of those ‘gutted,’ as he later put it, to be left behind was young Neil Brockman, son of Nigel Brockman, the boat’s assistant engineer. Coxswain Trevelyan Richards would not take two men from the same family. The lifeboat careered down the slipway and into the storm at 2021, with eight men aboard.
The tug Noord Holland arrived on the scene at 2030, but found the conditions far too dangerous to make any attempt at attaching a tow. Buurman decided to stand by just in case. Smith on the helicopter was trying again to get a line down to the coaster.
When the Solomon Browne arrived at 2047 the Union Star was only about 500 yards from the rocks, and the situation was critical. In the circumstances, the first exchange between the two vessels was almost comical in its off-hand casualness.
Penlee lifeboat: ‘Understand you had some trouble with the chopper. Do you want for us to come alongside and take the women and children? Over.’
Union Star: ‘Yes please. The helicopter is having a bit of difficulty getting to us, so if you could pop out I’ll be very much obliged. Over.’
‘The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see.’ From the helicopter Russell Smith watched in awed admiration as Trevelyan Richards tried again and again to bring the Solomon Browne alongside the coaster in the mountainous seas, which were even higher and steeper this close to the shore. At one point the lifeboat was picked up and deposited bodily onto the Union Star’s deck, to slide back into the sea. And still Richards kept coming.
Eventually he managed to hold the Solomon Browne alongside long enough for the helicopter crew to see four people jump onto the lifeboat, but by then the two vessels were only fifty yards from the shore. Smith had done all he could do, and decided to return to base. But Trevelyan Richards and the seven men of his crew were not finished with the Union Star. At 2121 a call was received at the Coastguard station. ‘Penlee lifeboat calling Falmouth Coastguard. We got four men off – look, er, hang on – we got four off at the moment, er, ma… male and female. There’s two left on board–’
There was a loud noise, and the transmission broke off mid-sentence. And that was the last anyone ever heard from the Solomon Browne.
Whatever that loud noise signified, it wasn’t the end of the lifeboat. The helicopter crew saw it shortly afterwards, heading out to sea and, they devoutly hoped, for home. At 2145 Guy Buurman on the Noord Holland reported that he had seen it silhouetted on the crest of a wave, close to shore.
But that was all. For the rest of the night the families of the lifeboatmen and the villagers of Mousehole anxiously listened in on their radio scanners as the Coastguard, the helicopter, and even some fishing vessels in the harbour tried to raise the Solomon Browne. There was only silence. The Penlee lifeboat never returned to its station.
No one knows whether the lifeboat managed to take those last people off the Union Star. No one saw the end of the Solomon Browne out in the blackness of the storm, nor knows how it happened. Most lifeboat disasters have involved a catastrophic capsize, but this one was more violent than that. By first light the next morning shattered debris was strewn along the shoreline. The Penlee lifeboat had been smashed to pieces.
Not a soul survived, either from the Union Star or the Solomon Browne. The close-knit Mousehole community was devastated. In Newlyn, the next village along the coast, a policeman reported that he saw grown men, ‘men I knew to be hard men,’ crying openly on the streets the next day.
Within twenty-four hours enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new crew. The present Penlee lifeboat, much larger and more powerful than the Solomon Browne, is kept in Newlyn harbour. Between 1993 and 2008 its coxswain was Neil Brockman, who was so upset not to be allowed to go out with his father on that tragic night.
The old Penlee lifeboat station is still there, preserved exactly as it was when the Solomon Browne left it for the last time. By the road above it are a commemorative plaque and a memorial garden. There is another memorial plaque on the Ship Inn in Mousehole. The villagers still decorate their streets for Christmas, but at eight o’clock in the evening of every 19 December the lights are turned off for an hour.
One positive consequence of the disaster was that the RNLI, which had been running a bit short of funds, saw a massive increase in donations. The next time I see someone collecting for the lifeboats I shall be sure to put something in the box. I urge you all to do the same.
If anyone wishes to watch the documentary that inspired this blog, it is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeIX0VnUMKoOctober 15, 2018 at 9:03 am #2285JonathanParticipant
Will definitely watch that video – thanks for this.October 15, 2018 at 10:09 am #2287
Logged into the Den and saw that you’d written another of your fascinating blogs, Richard, so I went and made myself a cup of tea and settled down for a good read. I didn’t disappoint. Fascinating story and I must confess to having damp eyes at the end. You’ve got a real knack of telling these tales in an interesting and moving way. Thanks JaneOctober 15, 2018 at 10:10 am #2288
That should be IT didn’t disappoint!October 15, 2018 at 10:36 am #2290John S AltyParticipant
Excellent, Richard.October 15, 2018 at 12:26 pm #2292
Superb blog tinged with tragedy, and, as always told with clarity and sympathy. For all the improvements in hardware and technology, RNLI operations can still be phenomenally dangerous. Operating in those conditions, that close to shore… Reading the account reminded me of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (great book, but don’t bother with the film) – notably how the weather so quickly overtook the ability of rescue services to survive, let alone attempt to rescue those out in it. Hard to overstate the admiration the lifeboat crews deserve. It must have been a catastrophic event that caused her total loss, and it’s a little unsettling that we’ll never know, but in 60ft breakers, having already been smashed against the Union Star’s hull, it must have taken unimaginable courage for the crew to continue, knowing full well what could happen. The fact that they so nearly succeeded in saving lives makes it all the more heartbreaking.
I was surprised to read that the type of lifeboat of which Solomon Browne belonged was the last evolution of a basic design introduced in 1919 as a sailing and pulling lifeboat. Very reliable, stable and strong design.October 15, 2018 at 1:43 pm #2293BellaParticipant
Truly terrifying conditions. I am sorry it was such a sad end for so many people.
Very well-told tale, Richard. Thank you.October 15, 2018 at 4:02 pm #2294
The BBC documentary gives the false impression (without actually saying so) that the moment that transmission broke off was the end of the Solomon Browne. That makes for an emotional moment in the programme, but was not the case, since it was seen afterwards. For what it’s worth, I believe that it suffered another violent impact with the Union Star, an impact that destroyed its radio aerials and quite likely caused other damage. Then, trying to make it back to base, it somehow succumbed to the storm. That may have been because it had suffered disabling damage from its impacts with the coaster. It may have simply been overwhelmed by a huge wave and capsized. What seems certain is that it somehow got onto the rocks.
The Watson type was the almost universal type of lifeboat when I was young. At Whitby, where I was on holiday recently, there is still a retired Watson lifeboat, the Mary Ann Summers, slightly older and smaller than the Solomon Browne, now privately owned but still in RNLI colours. It has had wooden benches bolted to its open deck, and for £3 you can have a half-hour ride out to sea and back. It’s an interesting experience, as I can personally testify.October 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm #2295
Another possibility is that the waves were so big that in a trough the Solomon Brown literally hit the seabed. If I’m ever up Whitby way I’ll definitely see about a ride on their Watson lifeboat.
There’s a decent collection of historic lifeboats at the dockyard at Chatham. I’ve a feeling they have a couple of Watson-type boats there but it seems to be difficult to find out much about the individual boats online, and it’s a while since I visited.October 15, 2018 at 6:25 pm #2296Jackie WesleyParticipant
This is fascinating and poignant. All the more so as we have regular guests who stayed around a fortnight ago and took their friend over to Mousehole, as close as they could to the site of the Penlee disaster. The coastal pathway is overgrown now and their friend is unable to walk well, so they didn’t reach the site.
To cut a long story short – and I don’t have permission to retell this – but their friend was meant to be on the lifeboat. For known reasons, he didn’t make it to the lifeboat station. He feels bad to this day as he feels – most likely wrongly but who knows? – that if he’d been there things may have been different.
When our guests were telling the story I felt for their friend and for the appalling loss of life. But your story above, Richard, has made it all the more tragic. Thank you for writing about it.
October 15, 2018 at 8:05 pm #2299
- This reply was modified 3 years ago by Jackie Wesley.
I can understand how this man feels, but I also remember that the coxswain turned away some of those who did make it to the lifeboat station. Who’s to say he might not have been one of them?
If you want to experience the full admiration for the courage of those men, you need to watch that BBC film and listen to Russell Smith’s eyewitness account of the Solomon Browne’s rescue attempts. I guarantee it’ll raise the hairs on the back of your neck.October 15, 2018 at 8:32 pm #2301SeagreenParticipant
Felt the pressure building up as I read and the dam burst at this line ‘Within twenty four hours enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new crew…’Not a good look when you’re in the restaurant car park waiting for your sister.
Seriously, there are no other group of people who earn this much of my respect.October 16, 2018 at 8:19 am #2305
Same moment. Same reaction, Sea!October 16, 2018 at 8:52 am #2307
One of those moments that tend to restore your faith in human nature. And yes, very moving.October 16, 2018 at 9:03 pm #2349Jackie WesleyParticipant
Thanks Richard. I will.December 19, 2018 at 10:19 am #3507
The Penlee lifeboat disaster was 37 years ago today, Twitter reminds me. If you haven’t read Richard’s blog about it, above, I highly recommend you doDecember 19, 2018 at 3:40 pm #3516LibbyParticipant
Thank you for this blog Richard – and Daeds. I hadn’t read it before. I remember the Penlee disaster but had forgotten the terrible details.
I have my RNLI Christmas card from a friend who always sends one. It’s very amusing. Santa’s reindeer in crew safety helmets.
I bought my cards this year from the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, another seafarers’ charity worth supporting though I don’t want to detract from the RNLI!
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