The Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

On Saturday 19th December 1981 the Penlee lifeboat ‘Solomon Browne’ (ON954), a 47ft wooden Watson class motor lifeboat, was launched in hurricane conditions to go to the aid of the MV Union Star that had engine failure and was being swept towards the southern coast of Cornwall. After the ‘Solomon Browne’ had managed to rescue four people, radio contact was lost. Both vessels were subsequently wrecked losing all hands. In total sixteen people lost their lives including the eight volunteer lifeboatmen of Penlee.

The MV Union Star was launched in Denmark just a few days prior to the incident. A mini-bulk carrier registered in Dublin, Ireland, it sailed to the Netherlands to collect a cargo of fertiliser for its maiden voyage to Arklow in Ireland. There was a crew of five – Captain Henry Morton, Mate James Whittaker, Engineer George Sedgwick, Crewman Anghostino Verressimo and Crewman Manuel Lopes. Also on board was the captain’s family who had been picked up en-route – Captain’s wife Dawn and teenage stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne. Near the south coast of Cornwall, approximately 8 miles east of the Wolf Rock, the ship’s engines failed. The crew battled to restart them informing the coastguard of the situation. Assistance was offered by a salvage tug, the Noord Holland, under the Lloyd’s Open Form salvage contract but Captain Morton refused the offer, waiting to see if the engineer and crew could restart the engines themselves.

The weather deteriorated with winds gusting at up to 90 knots (100 mph or hurricane force 12) and with waves up to 60 feet high. The powerless Union Star was being blown across Mount’s Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Point, near Lamorna Cove.

As the ship was heading towards the coast, the Coastguard at Falmouth scrambled a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron (who were providing cover for 771 Naval Air Squadron), RNAS Culdrose. It used the call sign “Rescue 80” during the mission.The aircraft was flown that night by United States Navy exchange-pilot Lt Cdr Russell Smith, assisted by Lt Steve Marlow, S/Lt Kenneth Doherty and Leading Aircrewman Martin Kennie of the Royal Navy. The Sea King was unable to get a line to the Union Star due to the weather so the Penlee lifeboat was launched at 8.21pm.

The lifeboat’s coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, repeatedly took the lifeboat alongside the coaster to try and rescue the eight people on board, before managing to take four people off. The lifeboat made a further attempt to rescue the remaining four when radio contact was lost. It was subsequently discovered that the lifeboat had been completely wrecked with the loss of her crew of eight. The coaster was also lost. There were no survivors.

Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the Institutions Gold Medal for the manner in which four people were taken off the coaster. The remainder of the crew, Second Coxswain/Mechanic James Stephen Madron, Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman, Emergency Mechanic John Robert Blewett, crew members Charles Thomas Greenhaugh, Kevin Smith, Barrie Robertson Torrie and Gary Lee Wallis were posthumously awarded Bronze Medals.

Lt Cdr Smith USN, the Sea King pilot, later reported that: ‘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 when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI’.

The inquiry into the disaster determined: