Mousehole harbour


'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 a 100 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 Christmas, celebrations 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 silver-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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