Remembering the Penlee lifeboat tragedy, 40 years on

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The bravest of the brave

It was the ultimate sacrifice. Forty years ago today, the eight man crew of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat in Cornwall died trying to save the lives of the crew and passengers on a stricken cargo ship.

December 1981 was bitterly cold and the night of 19 December brought high seas and hurricane force winds. It took the crew of the lifeboat 30 minutes to come alongside the MV Union Star. They valiantly succeeded in getting four of the eight people on the ship onto the lifeboat. The coastguard assumed the Solomon Browne would then head for shore, but the crew were determined to save everyone. Tragically, the lifeboat foundered in the attempt.

I remember the shock of the news. As Joanne Payne, the daughter of crewman Charles Greenhaugh told the BBC, the village couldn’t believe the news. She recalled that everyone thought: “It’s not true, it can’t be true. The lifeboat always comes home.”

The Penlee tragedy was the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew. Today’s lifeboats are far better designed for the dangers of the sea: they will right themselves if capsized in heavy seas.

Father and son Nigel and Neil Brockman were both members of the Penlee lifeboat crew, but Coxswain Trevelyan Richards chose father Nigel over his 17 year old son because of his greater experience. As Lamorna Ash recounts in her book Dark, Salt, Clear about life in nearby Newlyn, the coxswain had a policy of not allowing two members of the same family on the same dangerous rescue mission. An echo of Saving Private Ryan. Neil later became coxswain of the replacement lifeboat. We should also remember the other eight victims of the tragedy: those on board the Union Star cargo ship.

Christmas mourning

Christmas 1981 was the saddest imaginable for the grieving village of Mousehole. Lamorna Ash says that even today its people resent the way the media descended on them over that tragic Christmas, not allowing them to mourn in private.

It is striking how many tragedies happen on the eve of Christmas: Penlee; Lockerbie; the Clapham Junction rail disaster. Or is it just that we are more conscious of tragedy at what it meant to be a happy time of year? Closer to home, both my grandfathers died just before Christmas, in 1942 and 1966.

Supporting the RNLI: a family tradition

Owen at Penarth RNLI, 2013

My family has supported the RNLI for many years. My late mother, Rosemary Skinner, volunteered at the RNLI shop in her hometown of Penarth, Wales until her failing eyesight made this impossible. The photo above shows Owen, aged 5, at an open day there during the Penarth festival in 2013.

RNLI lifeguards in action, Mawgan Porth, 2015

We saw a further side of the RNLI’s vital work during holidays in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. The beach has a reputation for dangerous rip currents (three surfers were killed there in 2014) so during the summer season RNLI lifeguards patrol the beach. We have heard the guards regularly calling to surfers and paddleboarders to move away from areas of danger through loud-hailers. On our first visit in 2011 I signed up on the beach to make monthly donations, which continue to this day.

It is not be as heroic as crewing a lifeboat in dangerous seas, but our donations do help the RNLI and its brave volunteers. Few were as valiant as the eight men who departed the Cornish shore on 19 December 1981, never to return.

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