40 years ago, the most terrible lifeboat tragedy occurred on the night of 19th December 1981.
Sixteen souls were lost: all eight crew members of the Penlee RNLI lifeboat Solomon Browne along with eight people (five crew and three family members) aboard the Union Star, the vessel they were attempting to rescue.
Lt Cdr Smith USN, the pilot of the rescue helicopter, later reported that it was:
“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 [lifeboat] 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.“
And the inquiry concluded that the loss of the Solomon Browne was:
“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 of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in whose service they gave their lives.“
In December 2015, the RNLI asked me to recount my visit to Penlee lifeboat station in an article I called Penlee: Courage at Christmas.
I’ve just reread it before writing these words and it still transports me right back to that emotive time.
So, what would I add 6 years later, after documenting over 100 lifeboat stations since my visit to Penlee and photographing some 2500 RNLI crew members?
Well, one thing has struck me most of all:
It doesn’t matter whether I’m speaking to a lifeboat volunteer in Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England, the Penlee lifeboat disaster is never far from the front of their minds.
Why? Because I believe they have the utmost respect for the eight lifeboat crew who died that night and it’s the ultimate reminder of what it really means to crew a lifeboat.
As Ian Sheridan told me during my visit to Howth lifeboat station in March 2019:
“…you don’t think anything’s going to happen to you ‘cos we all know that RNLI gear has R-N-L-I on the shoulder. It’s like a Superman patch that’s going to protect you, but we all know that’s not right because look what happened in Penlee.“
To the community of Newlyn and Mousehole:
The rest of the lifeboat, Search & Rescue and maritime communities — along with countless members of the public around the globe — will be thinking of you, sending love, gratitude and fortitude on this landmark anniversary.
I’m proud to stand among them in doing so and, as I wrote in 2015, when those lights are turned off tonight and you reflect upon those tragic events, I’ll be truly with you in thought and spirit.
It was the last major lifeboat disaster in the history of the RNLI. Long may it stay that way.
Here’s to the courageous service you selflessly continue today and long into the future. Your forebears would undoubtedly be very proud.
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