Having grown up in Cornwall surrounded by the sea, and now running a vintage nautical lighting shop, maritime incidents are very much part of our lives. Yet none was more tragic than the fate of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat. As a child it is ingrained in memory – coming just before Christmas, many collections were made in Cornwall, and indeed throughout the UK, to raise funds for those families left fatherless after this disaster.

Next Monday 19th December marks 35 years since the loss of the Solomon Browne, who went to the aid of the 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 RNLI lifeboatmen – all from the tiny village of Mousehole

The decision to go out that night shines a light on the courage of the RNLI lifeboat crew. Winds were gusting at up to 100 mph with waves up to 60 feet high, and who can imagine the terror of taking a boat out in such conditions. One potential crew member got to the lifeboat station on time, but was turned down by Cox Trevelyan Richards, who refused to take out two members of the same family. That act saved tragedy striking the same family twice.

In treacherous seas and winds, the crew repeatedly took the lifeboat alongside the coaster to rescue the eight on board – but the sea tossed the lifeboat around, sometimes even landing her on the deck of the Union Star. In the darkness and chaos of the enormous swell, four people eventually managed to clamber aboard – however it was the lifeboat men’s selfless return to rescue the remaining four that proved fatal. It was at exactly this moment that radio contact with the Penlee Lifeboat. All hands were lost. The lifeboat had been completely wrecked with the loss of her crew of eight, and the coaster was also lost.  There were no survivors.

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 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.”

Every year between 8-9pm on 19th December, the famous Mousehole lights are dimmed in memory of the eight courageous men from the village, who gave the ultimate sacrifice while trying to save others.

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