Jutting out into the wild North Atlantic Ocean the County of Cornwall is indelibly linked to the sea.
Nowhere in Cornwall are you more than 20 miles from the coast and on the edge of the Ocean lie numerous villages whose existence is based on either fishing or trade.
Strong amongst those villages is the tradition of saving lives at sea.
Around the Cornish coast can be found lifeboat stations where, crewed by volunteers, stand tough vessels ready to be launched at a moments notice to assist those in distress on the Sea. Lifeboats at Bude, Padstow, Falmouth, Fowey, Lizard, Sennen Cove, St Ives all have distinguished histories and can list many brave and tragic events in their roll of honour; but in Cornwall the most revered name is Penlee.
Forty years ago today, 19th December 1981, the crew of the Penlee Lifeboat answered a call to a vessel in distress.
The brand new MV Union Star on passage to Ireland from Holland with a cargo of fertiliser was in difficulties. She carried a crew of four, plus her Captain Henry Moreton, his wife and two teenage daughters.
At 18:00hrs Falmouth Coastguard received a distress call from the Union Star; her engines had failed and would not restart. Hurricane force winds were blowing the disabled vessel towards the treacherous and unforgiving South Coast of Cornwall.
In the small and picturesque fishing village of Mousehole, (pronounced Mowzull), population 600, the crew of the Penlee Lifeboat were put on standby; twelve men volunteered and eight were selected by Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards.
A Royal Navy helicopter was scrambled to assist the drifting merchant ship, but so strong were the winds, over 90 knots, and so violent the sea at 18m metre waves that it was unable to undertake any rescue operation.
At 20:00hrs the Penlee lifeboat was launched, the Union Star was now just two miles from the treacherous coast.
The lifeboat was named “Soloman Browne” and was a 14 metre long “Watson Class” with two powerful diesel engines giving a top speed of 9 knots.
For 30 minutes the helicopter crew watched as the Soloman Browne made numerous attempts to get alongside the stricken merchant ship.
“We’ve got four off.” Radioed the lifeboat to Falmouth Coast Guard.
Ten minutes later, the lights of the Soloman Brown disappeared and nothing more was heard.
The helicopter returned to base to refuel and took off again, whilst lifeboats from Sennen Cove, Lizard and St Mary’s were launched to help their colleagues.
At dawn the Union Star was seen capsized and on the rocks at Tater Du, just a few miles from Mousehole and debris from the Soloman Browne began to wash ashore.
Within 24 hours the small and stunned community formed another volunteer lifeboat crew.
Coxswain Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Gold Medal for Gallantry and the rest of the crew were awarded Bronze Medals.
Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith, the pilot of the Sea King helicopter, said:
‘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.They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.’
Every year on 19 December, the Christmas lights at Mousehole are dimmed between 8 and 9pm in memory of the 16 people who lost their lives, leaving just an illuminated Cross and two Angels shining down across the village and out to sea.
Remember them with pride and gratitude that volunteers like them still go down to the sea in boats to save lives:
Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards
Second Coxswain and Mechanic James Madron
Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman
Emergency Mechanic John Blewett
Crew Member Charles Greenhaugh
Crew Member Kevin Smith
Crew Member Barrie Torrie
Crew Member Gary Wallis.