On this day in history : 19th December 1981 – The eight volunteer crew of the Penlee Lifeboat lose their lives attempting to rescue those onboard the Union Star, off the coast of Cornwall…. In all sixteen people perish….

Memorial garden at Penlee – Image credit : Chris Wood – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

The MV Union Star had been launched a few days before in Denmark…. It was a mini-bulk carrier, registered in Ireland and was making its maiden voyage having collected a cargo of fertiliser from Holland to be delivered to Arklow, Ireland…. Onboard were five crew and the wife and two teenage daughters of Captain Henry Morton….

As the Union Star reached the south coast of Cornwall, approximately 8 miles east of Wolf Rock, the ship’s engines failed…. The crew attempted to restart them but unsuccessfully – a salvage tug offered assistance but this was refused as the crew believed at the time that the issue could be sorted….

However, the weather deteriorated and soon force 12 winds were whipping up 60ft waves – and the Union Star was being pushed towards the rocks of Boscawen Point close to Lamorna Cove…. A Sea King helicopter was scrambled by the coastguard – but on arriving it was unable to get a line to the Union Star…. There was no alternative but to call out the lifeboat….

Original Penlee Lifeboat Station, where Solomon Browne was launched from – Image credit : Geof Sheppard – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

It was the Penlee (near to Mousehole) Lifeboat that responded…. The Solomon Browne was a 47ft wooden Watson Class motorised lifeboat, which had been built in 1960…. It was launched to embark on its rescue mission at 8.12pm and once it reached the Union Star was successful in managing to take 4 people off the stricken ship…. It then made a further attempt to go back alongside to rescue those still onboard – but at that point all radio contact with the two vessels was lost…. It is unclear exactly what happened next – but ten minutes later the lights of the lifeboat had disappeared….

Wreckage from the lifeboat was later found along the shore and the Union Star lay capsized on the rocks west of the Tater Du Lighthouse…. There were no survivors and only some of the sixteen bodies were ever recovered….

Tater Du Lighthouse – Image credit : Tom Corser CC BY-SA 3.0

An inquiry determined that the Union Star’s engines had failed due to contamination of the fuel by sea water…. The severity of the storm had made the rescue operation intensely difficult and had resulted in the loss of the Solomon Browne…. Tribute was paid to the crew….

“In consequence of the persistent and heroic endeavours by the coxswain and his crew to save the lives of all from the Union Star. Such heroism enhances the highest traditions by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in whose service they gave their lives”….

Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI’s gold medal and the remainder of the crew – Stephen Madron, Nigel Brockham, John Blewitt, Charlie Greenhaugh, Kevin Smith, Barrie Torrie and Gary Wallis – were each awarded the bronze medal….

Within a day of the disaster there were enough volunteers from Mousehole to form a new lifeboat crew….

Penlee Lifeboat Memorial – Image credit : Tony Atkin CC BY-SA 2.0

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