The Penlee Disaster

Penlee Disaster After finally completing my dreaded Corporate Governance assignment on Thursday night – it was ‘RTM-d’ (Released to Manufacturing) as I still inappropriately refer to it a little before midnight - I’ve taken it relatively easy since.

Other than my two staple company law lectures, the rest of Friday was given over to reading the excellent book ‘Penlee – The Loss of a Lifeboat’ which I was sent as a belated Christmas present. While the disaster occurred before I was born, having grown up in Cornwall I was more than au fait with the tale behind that fateful night. For those who aren’t so familiar, the thrust of the tragic story is as follows. On the night of 19th December 1981 and in terrible weather, the lifeboat the Solomon Browne went to the aid of the stricken coaster Union Star which was drifting without power towards the shore. Having courageously rescued 4 of the 8 crew and passengers from the casualty and while attempting to recover the remainder, both the lifeboat and the Union Star were wrecked with a total loss of life.

Back in 2006 the BBC as part of their ‘Cruel Seas’ series screened a fascinating documentary on the Penlee disaster to mark the 25th anniversary. As well as interviews with the author of the book (Michael Sagar-Fenton) there were very interesting accounts from the helicopter crew, the lifeboat launching party and other crew members, coastguards, village locals and the some families who had lost loved ones. It also included the original (if slightly eerie) CB radio recordings of communication between the two boats, a tug sent to assist, the helicopter and the coastguard which caught the chilling moment when the transmission from the lifeboat went dead in mid stream.

The book itself was excellent, well researched and ably written; Sagar-Fenton does an excellent job of capturing the build-up of tension and sense of tragedy that ensued while handling the account of what was undisputedly a terrible tragedy in a tasteful and sensitive way. My only disappointment, perhaps, was the fact there was not more of it. I was hoping for a book that was going to flesh-out my understanding of the disaster a little more but, I have to say, it didn’t really add much over and above what the documentary provided. While I did learn a couple of interesting facts of which I wasn’t previously aware, I would have enjoyed a slightly more thoroughgoing account of the background details and felt the book came to a slightly rushed conclusion. The chapter given over to the subsequent inquiry seemed to gloss over many of findings without advancing further analysis, for instance.

On the whole, though, it was an excellent read and a treasured newcomer to my bookshelf. While I recognise it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, it provides a fascinating insight into one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters in recent times and stands as a spellbinding account of human bravery, determination and ultimately sacrifice displayed by the crew of the Solomon Browne. As the pilot of the rescue helicopter, Russell Smith, wrote in a letter shortly after the disaster:

“The greatest act of courage I have ever seen, and am likely to ever see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 foot breakers... They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”


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