[Transcript] – Last week saw the anniversary of the loss of the Penlee lifeboat, with all hands. She was the Solomon Browne, a 47-foot Watson class vessel paid for, like all RNLI lifeboats, by donations from the public.
On the evening of the 19th of December 1981, The Union Star, a brand new 1,400-ton coaster on her maiden voyage and making for Arklow, in Ireland, was in trouble around 8 miles off the Wolf’s Rock lighthouse, in SW Cornwall. Her engine had failed and could not be restarted. Aboard were her skipper Henry Morton, his wife, two teenage daughters and a crew of four – eight people in all.
Morton’s call for help was heard first by the crew of a nearby tug, also struggling through the English Channel that night in the teeth of a dreadful storm. They offered to put a line aboard and take the Union Star in tow. But Morton knew that that would have made the ship salvage. Fatefully he said thanks, but no thanks, and instead radioed for help from the rescue services.
The situation quickly worsened even more. Dead in the water they were being driven inexorably towards the rocks of the Cornish coast. A Sea King helicopter was scrambled from the base at Culdrose, and a call was sent out to raise the men of the Penlee lifeboat at Mousehole.
Coxswain William Trevelyan Richards received the alert. He stepped out of the home he shared with his mother, into the teeth of what was by then a full-blown hurricane. It was the last Saturday night before Christmas, and he made his way to the village’s Ship Inn where he knew many would have gathered for celebrations. He asked for quiet, told them the score and asked for seven volunteers. A dozen men raised their hands.
By the time they got to the boathouse there were more men waiting – all having received the call out at their homes. In the end, that night of nights, the Solomon Browne was crewed by Richards, James Stephen Madron, Nigel Brockman, John Blewit, Charlie Greenhaugh, Barrie Torrie, Kevin Smith and Gary Wallis.
The Sea King helicopter, piloted by Lt Cmdr Russell Smith, a US Navy pilot on exchange with the Royal Navy, was first to reach the Union Star. He lowered his winchman into the hellish soup of rain and hurricane force winds, in hopes of plucking some souls from the rolling deck of the ship below, but the conditions were so bad, they had to pull back and only watch what happened next.
The Solomon Browne lifeboat, utterly dwarfed by the coaster, hove into view and immediately sought to come alongside, trying again and again to get into position so as to be able to take her people off.
Lt Commander Smith later described how the Solomon Browne was picked up by mountainous waves – not once, but several times – and tossed onto the deck of Union Star like a landed fish, before washing back off into the sea once more.
Finally, Trevelyan Richards was able to keep her alongside the coaster just long enough. Lt Cmdr Smith watched as four shadows leapt from the deck of Union Star, down into the arms of the lifeboatmen waiting so very far below. Having saved four, Trevelyan Richards steered the Solomon Browne back to try and get the rest.
The helicopter crew watched, the operators at Falmouth Coastguard listened. What came next was everlasting silence. No one knows for sure what happened. It seems likely the lifeboat and the coaster had been pushed so close to land that finally they hit rocks in shallow water. Union Star may have rolled over on top of the lifeboat when she capsized. In any event, all were lost – the 8 from Union Star and the 8 lifeboatmen. Only eight bodies were ever found, four from each vessel. It’s the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew. May that sad record stand for evermore. William Trevelyan Richards, the coxswain, was buried on Christmas Eve. There were more funerals to come.
On the morning after the tragedy, many volunteers stepped forward from the community of Mousehole, ready to take the places of the lost men.
At the subsequent enquiry, a letter from Lt Cmdr Smith was read out to the court:
“Throughout the entire rescue the Penlee crew never appeared to hesitate. After each time they were washed or blown away from the Union Star, the Penlee crew immediately commenced another run in.
“Their spirit and dedication were amazing. They were truly the greatest eight men I have ever seen.”
Truly they were … truly they were.
Nearly an hour after the last transmission from Solomon Browne, a lookout on the cliffs swore blind he saw her lights, making her way home.
“Dusk is drowned forever until tomorrow,” wrote Dylan Thomas. “It is all at once night now. The windy town is full of windows, and from the larupped waves, the lights of the lamps in the windows call back the day and the dead that have run away to sea.”
Ever since, it has been the tradition to switch off the Mousehole Christmas lights at 8 o’clock on the 19th of December as a gesture of remembrance.
I think about the Penlee lifeboatmen every year at this time. They say Greater love hath no man than this, but that he lay down his life for his friends. I say there is a greater love, and that it was revealed in the willingness of those eight Mousehole men who were ready to lay down their lives for people they had never met and would never know.
I often remind myself of the Penlee lifeboatmen, in fact, throughout the year – and I think about selfless acts of courage that declare in the strongest possible terms what it truly means to be human and alive. I think about what people are capable of, how much they have to give … and how much some of them WILL give. The Penlee lifeboatmen gave everything they had.
At Christmas we think about the birth of a child – Jesus Christ. He is God’s gift to the world. Every child is a gift precious beyond description. It is also an act of immeasurable bravery by every woman who bears a child – because every child is, she knows, at the mercy of the world and every mother must understand, without needing to think about it, that her child is ultimately surrendered to life itself.
Mary gave birth to Jesus – the son of God – and even she would not be spared the ultimate loss. All our lives are forfeit – a debt that must be repaid, willingly or unwillingly.
Christmas is the time to think about all this – to think about what it means to give – and to acknowledge the meaning of the gift of the child … of every child.
The selfless courage of the Penlee lifeboatmen and the message of the Christmas story can be the antidote to much of the madness that is all around us now. It is a time to remember what we have, to value our loved ones and be thankful they are with us.
Rather than our hollow, spineless leaders, it is the courage and sacrifice of our fellow citizens that should capture and hold our attention, and not just now but all through the year.
It often feels like we are supposed to be focus all our attention on those who are not worthy. Those whose faces we see every day, the politicians in parliament, the leaders around the world, their preferred experts … whose names we hear over and over – they have nothing to give that is of any use to us now, that much as been made painfully obvious in recent years. I have long since stopped paying them any attention at all. Instead, I look for heroes elsewhere.
We are supposed to believe our leaders mean to rescue us – from whatever Covid was, from the warmongers, from climate change, from the cost of lockdown crisis – but they had, and have, no such intentions as far as I can see. If they have plans to make anything better, it is certainly not our lives, or the lives of our children.
There is no cavalry coming to rescue us. If we are to be saved – and we surely will be – then we must look to one another for the necessary effort. We are more than capable of the task. We must save ourselves and each other by setting aside old broken ways and finding new.
We should turn away from those who have failed us, lied to us, deceived us and left us to our fates and see that it is time to take the initiative, to shape and build something new, something untouched by those who have betrayed us and let us down.
Just because the help and leadership we need is not yet clearly in view … the seeds of it are there among us already, nonetheless. We must come to our own rescue in the year and years ahead because there’s no one else.
The Christmas story tells us that 2000 and more years ago, a baby boy was born into poverty and into obscurity. During the 33 years of the life of the man he became, he was recognized for what he really was, his true value, by relatively few. He died as he had lived, in obscurity. He was executed for standing up to, and challenging, the establishment, but by his actions the world was changed forever, for the better.
Sometimes the most obvious people change the world. At other times, it’s the people the world does not notice, that the world thinks nothing of and so ignores, who end up making all the difference.
I hope and also trust that this is one of those times. I have no faith in the obvious, loud people with their hands on the levers of power. We will be saved by our own actions in defiance of those who care for us not a jot and who prioritize only those they serve – which is to say the already rich and the already powerful, the banks, the markets and the global corporations. I say we should ignore the whole lot of them.
Here’s the thing: together, right now, we already have everything we will ever need, which is to say each other. We can share food and warmth and light.
We are free people. It’s Christmas and the Christmas message is that hope is here. Light in the dark.
The enemy have us surrounded. Good! Now we know where to find the bastards! -various