The Penlee lifeboat disaster occurred on 19 December 1981 off the coast of Cornwall. The lifeboat Solomon Browne, based at the Penlee lifeboat station near Mousehole, went to the aid of the vessel Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas. After the lifeboat had rescued four people, both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died including eight volunteer lifeboatmen.
The MV Union Star was launched in Ringkøbing in Denmark just a few days before it was wrecked on the Cornish coast. A mini-bulk carrier registered in Dublin, Ireland, it sailed to IJmuiden in the Netherlands to collect a cargo of fertiliser for its maiden voyage to Arklow in Ireland.
It was carrying a crew of five: Captain Henry Morton; Mate James Whittaker, Engineer George Sedgwick, Crewman Anghostino Verressimo, and Crewman Manuel Lopes. Also on board was the captain's family (his wife Dawn with teenage stepdaughters Sharon and Deanne) who had been picked up at an unauthorised stop on the east coast of England.
Near the south coast of Cornwall, 8 miles (13 km) east of the Wolf Rock, the new ship's engines failed.
It was unable to restart them but did not make a mayday call. Assistance was offered by a tug, the Noord Holland, under the Lloyd's Open Form salvage contract but Morton initially refused the offer, later accepting after consulting his owners.
Winds were gusting at up to 90 knots (100 mph; 170 km/h) – hurricane, force 12 on the Beaufort scale – with waves up to 60 feet (18 m) high. The powerless ship was blown across Mount's Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove, near Lamorna.
Sea King helicopter
As the ship was close to shore, the Coastguard at Falmouth summoned a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron (who were providing cover for 771 Naval Air Squadron), RNAS Culdrose. It used the call sign "Rescue 80" during the mission.
The aircraft was flown that night by United States Navy exchange-pilot Lt Cdr Russell Smith, assisted by Lt Steve Marlow, S/Lt Kenneth Doherty and Leading Aircrewman Martin Kennie of the Royal Navy.
They were unable to winch anyone off the ship as the waves were too violent.
RNLB Solomon Browne
The original Penlee Lifeboat Station, from which Solomon Brownewas launched
The Coastguard had difficulties contacting the secretary of the nearest lifeboat station, Penlee Lifeboat Station at Mousehole on the west side of the bay. They eventually contacted Coxswain Trevelyan Richards and asked him to put the lifeboat on standby in case the helicopter rescue failed. He summoned the lifeboat's volunteer crew and picked seven men to accompany him in the lifeboat.
They were Second Coxswain/Mechanic Stephen Madron, Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman, Emergency Mechanic John Blewett, and crewmembers Charlie Greenhaugh, Kevin Smith, Barrie Torrie and Gary Wallis. Neil Brockman, the son of Nigel Brockman, got to the lifeboat station on time, but was turned down for the trip by Trevelyan Richards, who was reluctant to take out two members of the same family that night.
The lifeboat launched at 8:12 pm and headed out through the storm to the drifting coaster. The lifeboat was the Solomon Browne, a wooden 47-foot (14 m) Watson-class boat built in 1960 and capable of 9 knots (17 km/h). After it had made several attempts to get alongside, four people managed to jump across; the captain's family and one of the men were apparently safe. The lifeboat radioed that 'we’ve got four off', but that was the last heard from either vessel.
Lt Cdr Smith USN, the pilot of the rescue helicopter, later reported that:
The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and 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 ft 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've ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.
Lifeboats were summoned from Sennen Cove, The Lizard and St Mary's to try to help their colleagues from Penlee. The Sennen Cove Lifeboat found it impossible to make headway round Land's End. The Lizard Lifeboat found a serious hole in its hull when it finally returned to its slipway after a fruitless search.
In the aftermath of the disaster, wreckage from the Solomon Browne was found along the shore, and the Union Star lay capsized onto the rocks, west of Tater Du Lighthouse. Some, but not all, of the 16 bodies were eventually recovered.