The Penlee lifeboat disaster

The 19th of December will be remembered by any Cornish person in their 50s or above as the day when, 38 years ago, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat at Mousehole lost their lives. They had put to sea to go to the aid of the bulk carrier, the Union Star, which was in difficulties and drifting in the teeth of a furious gale.

The Union Star was actually on its maiden voyage. Launched in Denmark a few weeks earlier, it had picked up a cargo of fertiliser in the Netherlands and was heading for Dublin, where it was registered. En route the boat had also collected the captain’s family, who added three to its crew complement of five, as it sailed westwards into an oncoming storm.

Eight miles east of Wolf Rock its engines failed, contaminated by sea water. In winds gusting up to 100 mph and waves reputedly 60 feet high, it was blown back towards the cliffs of West Penwith.

The coastguard called up a helicopter, but the wind was too violent for the helicopter to winch anyone off. So they then requested the lifeboat at Penlee to launch. The Penlee boat, the Solomon Browne, then set off at 8.12 in the evening. In raging seas it located the Union Star and managed to manoeuvre alongside, successfully taking four people off the stricken ship. It then radioed that it was trying to rescue the remainder. And then there was radio silence.

wreckage from the Union Star

The 46-foot wooden lifeboat had presumably been smashed against the side of the carrier, pummelled by the horrific waves. Other lifeboats were launched: the Sennen boat was unable to make it around Land’s End while a search by the Lizard boat found nothing.

Sixteen people, the eight-man crew of the Solomon Browne and the eight on board the Union Star, lost their lives in this tragedy. A public appeal afterwards raised £3 million in recognition of the incredible bravery of those who volunteer to risk their lives in such conditions to save the lives of others. Following the disaster, the old lifeboat house was closed, a memorial garden planted nearby and a new lifeboat station established at nearby Newlyn.

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