Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

Shipwreck of the M.V. Union Star and the loss of the Penlee Lifeboat “Solomon Browne”.

On 19th December, 1981 the crew of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat – Watson Class Solomon Browne – were called to give assistance to the 1,400 ton coaster Union Star.

The M.V. Union Star was in transit from Ijmuiden to Arklow. The weather conditions were amongst the worst ever seen, with winds from the south east at hurricane force 12 and gusting to 90 knots; the seas off the coast of South West Cornwall were topping heights of around 60ft The Union Star had reported an engine failure when eight miles east of the Wolf Rock Lighthouse. She was drifting towards the cliffs between the Tater-du Lighthouse and Boscowan point.

The conditions were so poor that in spite of many attempts a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, piloted by exchange pilot Lt-Cdr Russell L. Smith USN, was unable to lift off any of the coaster’s crew. As the mountainous seas drove the Union Star towards the cliffs the crew of the Solomon Browne, led by Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards, repeatedly took the lifeboat alongside the coaster attempting to rescue the eight people on board. On at least two occasions the lifeboat was lifted onto the deck of the Union Star The Solomon Browne was observed to be moving away, apparently still under control.

The last message from the lifeboat confirmed that four people had been rescued. The boat then turned, possibly to make another approach. There was no further radio contact with the lifeboat, but her lights were seen to disappear some ten minutes later, at about the same time that the Union Star was overwhelmed and laid on her side to the west of Tater-du Lighthouse.

The Vincent Nesfield Lifeboat which was temporarily on station at Sennen Cove, was launched in the very early hours of December the 20th. The Oakley class lifeboat was under the command of Coxwain/Mechanic Maurice Hutchens but, heading into the full force of the storm and with wind against tide increasing the ferocity of the seas, she was unable to round Land’s End. The Vincent Nesfield launched again and joined the St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly lifeboat along with the Lizard-Cadgwith lifeboat The Duke of Cornwall, helicopters, HM Coastguard coastal rescue teams and fishing vessels in the search for those missing. Despite many hours searching throughout the night and following day, all on board the Union Star and the Solomon Browne were lost. Some of the bodies have never been recovered.

Awards for gallantry have been made to the coxswain and crew of the Solomon Browne for the rescue of four people from the Union Star despite the tragic end to their efforts.

The Gold medal for outstanding gallantry was awarded to Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards.

The Bronze medal for gallantry was awarded to each member of the lifeboat’s crew:

Second Coxswain/Mechanic James Stephen Madron,

Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman,

Emergency Mechanic John Robert Blewett,

Crew Member Charles Thomas Greenhaugh,

Crew member Kevin Smith,

Crew member Barrie Robertson Torrie,

Crew member Gary Lee Wallis

A gold medal service plaque was awarded to the station.