This weekend marks forty years since the Penlee’s lifeboat Solomon Browne was launched in hurricane-force winds, which whipped up waves of 50 feet off the treacherous Cornish coast.

A crew of eight volunteer lifeboatmen, all experienced, attempted to reach the Union Star, a coaster in distress that was in danger from drifting onto rocks.

The result was a daring act of seamanship under extreme circumstances that almost saved many who were at risk. It is now remembered as the most tragic incident in the RNLI’s 197-year history.

Forty years ago this weekend, the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was launched into hurricane-force winds that had whipped up 50ft waves off the treacherous Cornish coast. As the 47 ft wooden lifeboat sped down the slipway (above), Kevin Brockman watched in awe. He recalled: 'I've never seen a piece of seamanship like that. People don't realise what the weather was like that night'

This weekend marks forty years since the Penlee’s lifeboat Solomon Browne launched into strong winds, creating 50 ft waves along the rugged Cornish coast. Kevin Brockman was awestruck as the wooden 47-foot lifeboat raced down the slipway. Brockman recalled, “I have never seen such a fine example of seamanship.” The weather that night was so different from what people think is possible.

The crew of eight experienced volunteer lifeboatmen were attempting to reach a stricken coaster, the Union Star, which was in danger of drifting on to rocks. (The rescue as depicted by a Penzance artist)

A crew of eight volunteer lifeboatmen, all experienced, attempted to reach the Union Star, a coaster in distress. It was at risk of sinking to the rocks. Penzance artist depicts the rescue.

Sunday, December 19, 1981 at 8 a.m.

The 900-ton merchant vessel MV Union Star, weighing in at 900 tons, is making her maiden voyage to the English Channel with a fertiliser cargo. Henry Morton, 32 years old, is her skipper and this will be his first command. A crew of four is his.

Henry visited the port of Brightlingsea (Essex) yesterday to bring Dawn, his 34-year old wife, along with two of their teenage stepdaughters Sharon, and Deanne. This would allow them to spend Christmas together.

An enormous storm is building in the Atlantic.


Malcolm Morton, Henry Morton’s younger brother calls to have a chat. Henry calls Malcolm to ask about the weather. Henry tells him that Force 5 winds are expected to change. He states that although the Union Star appears to be rolling in the waves, she’s still doing well.


A sudden failure of the engines at the Union Star off the Cornish Coast causes it to be evacuated. George Sedgwick (her engineer) descends into the engine area to look for problems. The fuel tanks have been contaminated by seawater, which is something that no one has ever noticed. It will be difficult to restart the engines.

Now, the ship has no radar and only low-level power for emergency. This means that Morton isn’t able to know where he is. The wind is picking up, and the seas are rising.

Duty calls: The 47ft Solomon Browne lifeboat (pictured) rescued more than 90 people in its 21 years

Duty calls: In its 21-year history, the 47ft Solomon Browne Lifeboat (pictured) has saved more than 90 lives.


George Sedgwick may not have been able to fix the engines but Captain Morton who is an expert sailor says that there is no immediate need to issue a Mayday call.

He radios Falmouth Coastguard instead. He calmly explained that his wife is onboard with him and his stepchildren. If necessary, a helicopter would be available to help them.

Coastguard’s radar allows them to determine if Henry is within eight miles of Wolf Rock. It is also close to Land’s End. It is blowing force 10.


Coastguard are concerned about the Union Star, which is in danger of sinking. Penlee Point (about a mile from Mousehole) is the closest lifeboat station.

Trevelyan Riches, 56 years old, is the Coastguard’s telephone operator. He has been a coxswain for the Penlee Solomon Browne boat since 2001. Trevelyan asks Trevelyan for his assistance and explains about the Union Star.

Mary, Mary’s widow, sets the table and he begins calling senior crewmembers to let them know if they are needed.


The Coastguard alerts a Dutch-owned tug, the Noord Holland. It is based near Penzance. Johannes Buurman, the tug’s captain, calls the Union Star, who is located just one mile away, to request help.

But Morton knows that salvage companies often charge enormous fees, sometimes running into millions of pounds, just for a call-out — even if a rescue isn’t needed — so he declines the offer.

He tells Union Transport about his situation, and the two begin to negotiate with the Dutch tug business.

Morton gives an update to the Union Star by contacting Falmouth Coastguard via radio. [the tug skipper]In the moment, is very interested in the money. As it stands, we’re not changing. It doesn’t appear that we are drifting towards land.

However, he’s wrong.

Real courage: Some of the crew members of the lost lifeboat Solomon Browne, who died while trying to save others

Amazing courage: Crew members from the Lost Lifeboat Solomon Browne who were trying to save other people died.


Trevelyan Richards is greeted by Nigel Brockman who arrives as the second mechanic for Solomon Browne. Trevelyan pulls out his charts and identifies exactly where Union Star is.

Coastguard Don Buckfield, Coastguard, opens Gwennap Head’s lookout station, just four miles away from Land’s End.

The Union Star is to be confirmed by him so he receives a radar fix from the coaster. He’s shocked at the distance the ship has travelled north; anything that hits this coast will immediately break apart.


Union Transport has reached an agreement with the owners of Noord Holland’s tug. Johannes Buurman is instructed to start salvage operations from Penzance by Johannes Buurman, skipper.


To see if their situation has changed, the Coastguard radios again to Union Star. Henry Morton is no longer sounding calm.

The engineer discovered that there is seawater in his port fuel tank. They plan to use it.


Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose scrambles a Sea King helicopter. Call sign Rescue 80

The crew of the ship use a flare and a flare to direct the pilot as the helicopter approaches Union Star. The Sea King, at 400 feet, is still being hit by the sea spray. Crew members are alarming that it is only two miles away from the coast.

Alarmed by the danger posed to the coaster, Falmouth Coastguard contacts Trevelyan Riches asking him to send the Solomon Browne right away.

Trevelyan’s mom Mary phoned the launch crew to instruct them to get to the boathouse. Mary also called the rocket crew, telling them to send the maroon missile. This alerted the volunteers who are located all over the village.


Janet Madron is the wife to Stephen Madron’s mechanic at Solomon Browne. She has a foreboding that things will go horribly wrong.

Later, she recalled that “I had never spoken anything like this before” and that it was the first time that she felt that way. Stephen replied, “I have to get out.” There are women and children everywhere.

Kevin Smith, 23 years old, says, “God! What a night!” as he runs into rain and wind.

Missing at sea: The wreckage of the Solomon Browne lifeboat is washed ashore

Missing at sea: A wreckage from the Solomon Browne Lifeboat washes ashore

Annette, his sister later stated that Kevin was an idiot and should not have shouted. Cunard was his merchant seamen and he didn’t return home for the next week. . . But he arrived December 16th.

Barrie Torrie (33-year-old local fisherman) and Lynn Torrie booked a babysitter to look after their sons. They had planned on going out that evening. Barrie leaves the room and says, “I’ll be back later.” Lynn plans to go with her friends.

Charlie Greenhaugh (Landlord of the Ship Inn at Mousehole Harbour) leaves his bustling Saturday night scene and joins the rush towards the boathouse.


Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith is the pilot for Rescue 80. He can only see the Union Star navigation lights so Captain Morton asks him to switch on any lights that will illuminate the deck.

Morton replied: “We have managed to start a generator so we will put lights on for your and watch how it works.”

Union Star — this is looking too difficult. We are getting close to your mast, and don’t have enough lines.

Smith is a pilot with more than 2000 hours experience. These are some of the most extreme weather conditions that he’s ever encountered.

Penlee has received more than 12 men to its boathouse. However, only eight crew members are required. Trevelyan Richards selects the most skilled men to help him with what will likely be an extremely difficult task.

Denis Leslie is a local retired doctor who drove from Penzance. He offers to drive, but Trevelyan declines.

Trevelyan has arrived with Nigel Brockman, his son and father, and Trevelyan chose Nigel to replace Kevin Brockman (17-years-old) because of their greater experience and coxswain’s policy that two family members cannot go on the same mission.

Kevin is sad.

Barrie Torrie, a fisherman from the Gulf of Mexico is reluctant to put on a lifejacket. But Trevelyan insists that it be worn and helps him do so.


Henry Morton informs Sea King crew that he would like them to take people off their boat. Russell Smith questions Henry Morton: “How many people are you planning on taking off?”

Morton responds, “One mother and two children.” Sea King crew don’t know that the skipper has a family member onboard. “Sorry, can you say it again?” Smith replies. Smith replies, “Sorry, say again?” Smith: ‘One mother and two children. The crew will be on board till the very end.


Launch of the Solomon Browne. This rescue team has saved more than 90 lives over the last 21 years.

Kevin Brockman looks on in amazement as the 47-foot wooden lifeboat glides down the slipway. Brockman recalled, “I have never seen such a fine example of seamanship.” It’s not common for people to realize what it was like on that particular night.


Rescue 80 is flying high above Union Star as it struggles with strong winds. Henry Morton hears from its crew: “We still have to sort out this rope. . . It will take us another five to six more minutes.

Stephen Marlow, a winchman who is dangerously low to Rescue 80 watches from the Union Star deck as a young girl is taken outside to safety by one of the crew members. Marlow notices that the girl is wearing pink court heels: “They seem so incongruous to be winched to safety in that violent circumstance,” he later said.

Every year on December 19, the Christmas lights at Mousehole (above) are switched off for an hour, between 8pm and 9pm, to remember those who lost their lives that night

Each year, on December 19, between 8 and 9 pm, the Christmas lights in Mousehole (above), are turned off for one hour to honor those who have lost their lives that evening.


The Union Star is being lifted up by waves 50 feet high, and pilots must take swift action to prevent the ship from hitting their rotors. The pilots can clearly see it is difficult to save anyone from this pitching deck.

They radio the ship: ‘Union Star — this is looking too difficult. Your mast is very near and our line is not long enough.

Morton said politely, “OK.” Thank you very much for your help. I will be putting an anchor down. The Union Star is less than a mile from cliffs, so it is not a wise decision.


After an extremely dangerous trip from Penlee Point to reach the rescue area, Solomon Browne arrived at the scene. The Union Star is contacted by Coxswain Trevelyan Rich Richards, who asks if the Union Star would like the lifeboat to be brought along so that they can save the children and women.

Henry Morton responds: “Yes, please. It’s having some difficulties getting to us. . . Thank you.

Morton has difficulty controlling his ship. Despite the anchor, Union Star is still headed towards land.


Again, the Solomon Browne urgently radios to Union Star: “Advise You with Crew, Everybody to Come Off, Over.”

Morton responds, “Yes, all of us are coming off,”

Now, the Noord Holland also appears on the scene. Johannes Buurman is the skipper. He can’t save the Union Star. The lifeboat rescues the crew members and passengers. He can only sit with his crew.

It was remarkable to see their determination and strength, given the horrible hurricane conditions and the relentless beating they were experiencing. These were eight of the most courageous men I have ever seen.

Janet Madron sits back at Mousehole and watches the rescue unfold through a radio scan. Stephen Browne’s mechanic from Solomon Browne cooks her dinner, which she then bakes in the oven. She thinks of her husband as soon as she opens the oven’s door.


Trevelyan Riches, the pilot of Rescue 80, has managed to steer the lifeboat along with the pitching Union Star. He and his crew have been throwing grapplinghooks at the ship as a last resort to save the two ships. Russell Smith, the pilot of Rescue 80, watches the boiling green water with concern — the Union Star is now only 300 yards from the rocks.

He said, “The Penlee crew didn’t seem to hesitate.” Each time the crew washed, bumped, or kicked from the casualty vessel the lifeboat started a new run-in.

“Their dedication and spirit was remarkable, especially considering how they had to endure the terrible hurricane waters and constant beating. These were eight of the most courageous men I have ever seen.


Andrew Besley (local journalist) is looking from the top a nearby rock. He is shocked to see a huge wave grab the lifeboat from the top of a nearby cliff and then drop it onto the Union Star’s deck.

Russell Smith is in the Sea King and fears for both boats. However, the Solomon Browne falls off the deck while Trevelyan Richards manages to steer the lifeboat along.


The clock is ticking. Trevelyan dials the Union Star, telling them they are on the rocks in just ten minutes. Sea King crew watches as darkened figures wearing fluorescent orange lifejackets race across the Union Star deck and leap into the arms the lifeboat crew.

Russell Smith said that a large wave hits the Solomon, and she miraculously lands on the opposite side, ‘like an submarine.’ Helicopter crew observe the Solomon Browne as she heads out into the sea. They assume they are returning to their home. Mission accomplished.

They realize they cannot do more, and decide to turn the Sea King in their direction towards RAF Culdrose.


The crew of the Solomon Browne realizes that not everyone has been saved from the Union Star. The crew decides to return.

Stephen Madron is the lifeboat mechanic and speaks to Coastguard.

Janet hears him say out loud, at their Mousehole home, as Janet listens to the radio. Penlee Lifeboat calling Falmouth Coastguard. We got four men off — look, hang on — we got four off at the moment, male and female. We have two more onboard . .’

Stephen’s voice is heard and he is immediately cut off.

Johannes Buurman on the Noord Holland tug sees both the Union Star lights and those of the Solomon Browne come out. Coastguard transmits to the Solomon Browne, ‘Penlee Lifeboat. Penlee Lifeboat. Falmouth Coastguard. More. . .’ There is however no answer.


Coastguard rescue teams find pieces of wreckage with blue paint at the base of the cliffs. They also spot an RNLI light jacket floating in the waters. A piece of oilskin, and an orange bobble-hat were also found.

Search out at sea involves fishing boats as well as lifeboats. The radio messages of the search parties are broadcast on the airwaves. “What’s your current position?” ‘Do you need help?’ ‘Do you have any questions?’

You can see paint from Solomon Browne on the Union Star’s guardrails.


The night ended without any survivors, and just a few of the 16 bodies found were saved. Trevelyan rejected Kevin Brockman as he was too young and he reported back to duty only two days after. Trevelyan said that it was in his blood and you cannot escape it.

In just days the RNLI received enough volunteers to create a new crew.

Almost everyone in the village of Mousehole and its surrounds knew someone on board the Solomon Brown, and the tragedy that befell the community just before Christmas — the loss of husbands, brothers, sons, and 12 young children left without fathers — struck a chord worldwide.

An official investigation into the accident in 1983 found no fault from any of more than fifty witnesses. It was caused by the malfunction of the engine of the coaster, and by severe weather conditions.

Some families from the Solomon Browne crew criticized the conclusion, feeling that life would have been spared if the boat had been launched earlier.

The Coastguard was given the power to start a Mayday, and require that a captain take a tow.

Trevelyan Rich Richards received posthumously the RNLI’s Gold Medal For Gallantry, and his crew members the Bronze Medals for their bravery and devotion to service.

Their sacrifice is still remembered forty years later. The Penlee Lifeboat Station has a memorial that bears their names, with the motto “Service Not Self”.

Each year, December 19th, all Christmas lights at Mousehole turn off for one hour between 8pm and 9:00pm to commemorate those who died that night.