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December 19th/20th 1981 - A killer storm

Guest Viking141

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Guest Viking141

On 19th December 1981 an intense Low Pressure system approached the UK from the Atlantic. Throughout that evening the winds increased and seas mounted.

On that evening, a small bulk cargo carrier, the Union Star, was on its maiden voyage from Ijmuiden in Holland to Arklow in Ireland with a cargo of fertiliser. On board were a crew of five, plus the masters wife and two daughters, who were travelling home for a family Christmas.


As the storm grew in intensity, the Union Star developed an engine problem while she was some 8 miles east of Wolf Rock on the south Cornish coast. Unable to restart her engines she was offered a tow by a nearby tug, the Noord Holland, which the master refused, not wanting to incur salvage charges. Then, her fuel supply having been contaminated by sea water and with winds now at 80mph gusting 95mph, and being driven towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove, the master finally put out a Mayday to Falmouth Coastguard. A Rescue Helicopter from RNAS Culdrose was immediately launched but conditions were so bad they were unable to remove any of the crew. The decision was then taken to launch the Penlee Lifeboat, from the village of Mousehole.

The 47ft Royal National Life Boat Solomon Browne was launched from Penlee Point in atrocious conditions. Of the 12 volunteers who responded to the call out, 8 men went out on the Solomon Browne. Only one man from each family went due to the appalling conditions.

As the Union Star got ever closer to the rocks, Lifeboat Coxswain Trevelyan Richards took the Solomon Browne in close to attempt a rescue. He made several attempts, at least two of which threw the Solomon Browne onto the heaving deck of the Union Star and on another occasion she was slammed into her side. In huge seas with a 50 ft swell and despite all the odds, the Solomon Browne managed to get 4 of the eight people off.

As they made another attempt to get the remaining crew off the Solomon Browne sent a final radio message to Falmouth Coastguard "We've got four men off, hang on, we have got four at the moment. Theres two left on board....." The radio went dead and nothing was heard from her again. At the same time the Union Star keeled over. Both vessels were lost with all hands.

What happened to the Solomon Browne is unknown. It has been guessed that either once again she was thrown on top of the Union Star during her final, fatal rescue attempt or that the wooden lifeboat was simply stove in by the rocks. In the continuing Hurrican Force winds, lifeboats from Sennen Cove, St.Marys in the Scilly Isles and The Lizard searched in vain for survivors, indeed The Lizard Lifeboat was herself seriously damaged in the storm. Over the 16 lives lost only 8 bodies were ever recovered.

A sobering reminder, if any were needed, of the sometimes lethal nature of Britains weather. I dedicate this article to the memory of the crew of the Royal National Life Boat Solomon Browne:

William Trevelyan Richards (56) Coxswain; James Stephen Madron (35) Second Coxswain/Mechanic; Nigel Brockman (43) Assistant Mechanic; John Blewett (43); Kevin Smith (23); Barrie Torrie (33); Charles Greenhaugh (46); Gary Wallis (23)

Incidentally, as a result of the enquiry into the tragic loss of the Solomon Browne, HM Coastguard now has "Powers of Intervention" on behalf of the Secretary of State to compel the master of a vessel to be taken under tow should the situation warrant.

Edited by Viking141
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