'PENLEE LIFEBOAT DISASTER ...."
With courage, nothing is impossible"
Saturday, 19th December
1981, around 9.00 pm, Trevelyan Richards,
coxswain of the 'Solomon Browne', radioed, "Penlee
Lifeboat to Falmouth Coastguard, we've taken four
off ... there're two left on board".
In response, the Coastguard transmitted, "Falmouth
Coastguard to Penlee Lifeboat", and repeated. "Falmouth
Coastguard to Penlee Lifeboat". A low static,
then silence. Contact was lost as the eight man
crew of the 'Solomon Browne', a wooden, Watson-
Class lifeboat were overwhelmed by the power of
the sea in a maritime tragedy, later described
as 'the greatest act of courage ever seen and and
ever likely to be seen'.
A coaster, the 'Union Star',
engines failed eight miles east of the Wolf Rock.
Hurricane strength winds, gusting of a100 mile
an hour with sixty foot waves, were blowing the
powerless ship towards rocks at Boscawen Cove,
near Lamorna. A Mayday was sent requesting immediate
assistance and the lifeboat, based in Cornish village
of Mousehole, responded to a distress signal relayed
by the Coastguard.
It was six days before
had started early, the lights had been switched
on and the village was buzzing with preparations
for Tom Bawcock's Eve when the call came in. Helicopter
rescue was impossible because of ferocity of the
sea and at 8.12 pm, the lifeboat was launched into
a pitching sea. Twelve men responded and Trevelyan
Richard chose eight of his most experienced men,
not picking two from one family as was the custom.
The last sighting was from
the helicopter. The
pilot saw the 'Solomon Browne' manoeuvre alongside
the coaster, as a huge wave picked up the lifeboat
and flung her onto the deck before sliding off
and pounding her into the unforgiving sea bed.
Families were waiting for their men to return,
as through the night, rescuers and volunteers searched
the slippery cliff tops west of Tater-Du Lighthouse
for survivors; none were found. At dawn, the coaster'
s twisted hull was seen, upside down on the rocks;
the air smelt of diesel and the red and blue, splintered
wreckage of the lifeboat was strewn across sea
as debris was washed ashore..
Accounts of that winter-black
night will be told
and written about in thousands of words, time and
time again by countless people. Personally, I remember
it as if it was yesterday. My husband was in our
recording studio, recording some tracks for an
American musician friend; the plan was for our
families to meet, around 6.00 pm, pick up the guys
from the studio and drive down to Coverack for
switching on the Christmas lights. The studio was
in an old RAF, wartime bunker, with line of sight
to the Lizard. As we came out into the exposed
darkness, a raw wind had got up and peppered us
with horizontal shards of driving rain. It had
an uncanny ferocity, a screaming, crazed beast,
a killer on the lose, screeching from the south-west.
Back home, we had a pleasant
evening with our
friends, with conversation about music and the
foibles of Cornish weather. By morning, the storm
was spent and a pallid, Solstice sun rose feebly
over a siiver-grey sea. I turned the radio on before
taking the kids to our little, local chapel to
rehearse for the Nativity Play; the track playing
was Elvis Costello's, 'Gloomy Sunday'! Followed
by the news... the 'Solomon Browne', was lost with
all hands; a roll call of names; names I recognised
of families I knew from when I lived in Mousehole.
My back story? Mousehole is very special to me;
if you can fall in love with a place, it was love
at first sight. A first holiday in Cornwall, staying
in St. Austell., it was a rainy day, I caught the
bus to Penzance and arriving at the Greenmarket,
a battered, blue bus was waiting. The destination
read Mousehole. Odd name, I thought, let's go there.
Through Newlyn, up the hill as the road curved
round the coast, we dropped down into the village,
took a left towards the harbour.... and wham! It
was so beautiful; almost unreal, like nowhere my
imagination could have invented. I knew that somehow,
someway, one day, I would live there. In time,
I did. I bought a cottage in Duck Street; two of
my neighbours were lifeboat mechanics and it's
where I met my husband.
Initially, I made the break
from my London life and spent a summer with a dear friend, who lived
there and got me a job pulling pints in 'The Ship'.
The pub was a lively place; singing, drinking,
noisy with crazy artists and fishermen. There was
a stool at the end of the bar unofficially reserved
for big, self-effacing trawler skipper, in a salt-bleached
cap and faded smock; Trevelyan Richards was that
bear of a man whose aura of quiet presence could
quell rowdy young fishermen by raising a shaggy
eyebrow. They would just nod at him, '"All
right, Charlie" and he'd nod back, his authority
didn't need words and I understood later why those
men would have been proud to have been selected
on that fateful night.
Forty years on, and Mousehole, like so many of
our fishing villages, is under threat not from
the force of nature but the power of money. Just
another pretty, quaint place for those with too
much money indulging in owning a second home with
no thought for the once thriving communities, they're
castrating. A deli and a bistro have replaced the
little grocer shop and where locals hung nets to
dry over the railings and chat about fish and the
weather, angry drivers jostle and shout from 4
x4's too wide for the narrow lanes and opes.
Accounts of that dreadful
night will become the
stuff of folklore and the names of the heroes not
readily remembered. But in a quiet corner of the
ancient, stone church at the village of Paul is
a granite boulder, brought from the sea
close to the place where lives were lost. Carved
on it are eight names and an inscription, 'The
bravest of the brave'.
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