Sea Stories

Truly the eight bravest men I’ve ever seen

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On the night of the 19th December 1981, in horrendous storm conditions, the small bulk carrier Union Star suffered engine failure east of the Wolf Rock.

Refusing tug assistance, the ship found itself being swept towards the coast at Boscawen Point, west of the Tater-du lighthouse. The Penlee lifeboat launched from Mousehole in total darkness, 100 mph winds and waves cresting to 60 feet.

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A naval rescue helicopter from RNAS Culdrose found itself unable to lower a winch due to the strength of the wind, and it was left to the lifeboat Solomon Browne a 47ft wooden Watson Class boat, to make the attempt to rescue the Union Star’s complement of eight, which included the captain’s wife and two teenage stepdaughters.

By this time, the Union Star was just 300 yards from the rocks. Time again, the lifeboat, also with a crew of eight, made approach runs in mountainous seas, and the helpless helicopter pilot could only look on in the wavering rays of his searchlights as the tiny lifeboat was repeatedly hurled onto the ship’s deck, then swept off again but, in this way, its crew managed to grab four of the stricken ship’s crew and get them aboard the lifeboat.

‘We’ve got four off,’ the lifeboat radioed to the coastguard as she prepared to make yet another run in towards the Union Star then, as the coastguard repeatedly tried to raise her, there was nothing but a shocking silence.

Only when daylight came was the devastating truth realised. The Union Star was a capsized wreck in the shallows, and the lifeboat had been smashed to matchwood, with total loss of life, the entire crews of both the Solomon Browne and the Union Star had perished.

The helicopter pilot, Lt-Cdr Russell Smith USN, was to write: ‘The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, or am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee (crew) when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60-foot breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch-covers.

They were truly the bravest eight men I have ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.’

RIP: Trevelyan Richards (56), coxswain, James Stephen Madron (35), 2nd coxswain/mechanic, Nigel Brockman (43), asst. mechanic & fisherman, John Blewett (43), emergency mechanic & telephone engineer, Charles Greenhaugh, landlord of the Ship Inn, Mousehole, Barrie Torrie (33), fisherman, Kevin Smith (23), Gary Wallis (23)

Related book All I Ask Is a Tall Ship by Michael Walsh

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Categories: Sea Stories

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