‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (Gospel of Saint John)
‘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 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.’ (Lt Cdr Russell Smith US Navy Pilot)
‘Now, never had a lifeboat fought in vain
She could have made a dash for port but she tried again
All sixteen perished in that mighty wave
It tossed them overboard into a watery grave.’ (Seth Lakeman)
This past week I have been taking time off in the far, far West of England.
Actually, just about as far west as the land extends before it cedes to the dominion of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Kernow a’gas dynergh. Welcome to Cornwall.
A land. A proud Kingdom.
A Kingdom with a language and proud history of its own.
A Kingdom of capes and jagged rocky shores.
A Kingdom of Celtic crosses and Celtic saints.
A land of of standing stones, barrows, carns, quoits, fougos, healing wells and martial forts.
A wild Kingdom where even the all conquering Roman Army feared to tread.
A Kingdom where for centuries men dug deep into the earth and under the sea to mine Tin.
A Kingdom where for centuries men put to sea in all weathers to bring Fish back to Harbour.
A Kingdom where for centuries smugglers under cover of darkness outwitted the Excise Men.
A Kingdom surrounded by and held in the spell of the Ocean.
A spell that can enchant. But, also a spell that can lead to doom.
So, in Cornwall the Ocean is celebrated, feared and respected.
For every time mankind leaves the land to voyage upon the ocean safety is being exchanged for peril.
For the Ocean has ancient power beyond power.
For the Ocean is restless and relentless.
And wholly indifferent to the fate of puny man and all the arts of seamanship.
So, before venturing out on the pitiless Ocean and while voyaging on that Ocean it is wise to be forewarned as to what lies in store by listening to, ‘The Shipping Forecast’.
The Shipping Forecast is a BBC radio programme which every day at 00.48, 05.20, 12.01 and 17.54 hrs broadcasts weather reports and forecasts for the 31 sea areas around the coast of the British Isles.
For many, like me, listening to the Shipping Forecast at 00.48 has become a form of meditation.
First with the lullaby of Ronald Binge’s, ‘Sailing By’ musical theme then with the comforting, familiar litany of:
Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties,
Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,
Fisher, German Bight, Humber,
Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre,
Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon,
Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey,
Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.
The clip below lasts for 13 minutes so you may want to dip in for just a few minutes to get the idea (though I’m sure many of you will find yourself in thrall to to its poetic rhythm and listen to the end).
For some though, playthings of the wanton Wind and Ocean, the message of the Shipping Forecast foretells peril and doom.
Life in terror and horror giving way to watery death.
So it was on 19 December 1981 with 60 foot waves whipped up by hurricane force winds of up to 100 miles per hour that the RNLI Penlee Lifeboat, from Mousehole, launched to attempt a rescue of the crew and passengers of the stricken MV Union Star as it was blown helplessly across Mount’s Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove.
Rescue by helicopter in such treacherous conditions had proved impossible.
So the call went out to the Penlee Lifeboat Station where it was answered by an 8 man volunteer crew of the Solomon Browne.
Answered by experienced seamen who knew in their stout hearts that to launch on such a night was to stare death squarely in the face.
Answered by Lifeboat Men who conscious of the extreme conditions still chose, not for gain or glory, to risk their own lives for those unknown to them who were in peril on the sea.
There were 8 crew and passengers on the MV Union Star and 8 crew aboard the Solomon Browne that fateful night. And, before the sun rose again over Mount’s Bay 16 lives had been lost – swallowed whole in the insatiable maw of the Atlantic Ocean.
Such a tale of tragedy and heroism cries out to be commemorated and honoured in a folk ballad.
Seth Lakeman writing and performing with a steady head, a full heart and all the energy at his command has given us a superb ballad which has the rare combination of narrative drive and emotional empathy. It can be found on his excellent record, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’.
The crew of the Solomon Browne, under the command of coxswain Trevelyan Richards, despite the ferocity of the conditions repeatedly went alongside the MV Union Star.
It appears from the last radio contact that they had succeeded in getting 4 people off but that all were lost in the attempt to rescue the other 4 aboard the coaster.
May they all rest in peace.
There are dark days and black nights when all of us may be tempted to despair at the tawdry and selfish nature of much of modern life.
Yet, the life, death and courage of the crew of the Solomon Browne should serve to remind us that the best of us are capable of awesome courage and that there are still those prepared to risk their own lives for others.
Within a day of the loss of the Solomon Browne enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new Lifeboat crew.
Despair is an indulgence.
If we have courage. If we have faith. If we have love we can voyage through the darkest night and the stormiest seas.
‘That lifeboat thundered through an angry sea was called Solomon Brown and her company’.
May their tale be told for ever more.
Dedicated to the memory of the crew of the Solomon Browne:
Trevelyan Richards (Coxswain, Trawler skipper)
Stephen Madron (Second Coxswain, Ships Pilot)
Nigel Brockman (Assistant Mechanic, Fisherman, fish Auctioneer)
John Blewett (Emergency Mechanic, Telephone Engineer)
Kevin Smith (Crewman, Merchant Seaman)
Barrie Torrie (Crewman, Fisherman)
Charlie Greenhaugh (Crewman, Landlord of the Ship Inn)
Gary Wallis (Crewman, Fisherman)
and to those who lost their lives on the MV Union Star :
Henry Morton (Captain)
James Whittaker (Mate)
George Sedgwick (Engineer)
Anghostino Verressimo (Crewman)
Manuel Lopes (Crewman)
Every day and night the crews of RNLI Lifeboats stand ready in all weathers to come to the rescue of those in peril on the Sea.
Please support them with a donation if you can.
With thanks to Gerry and Sue for so generously providing a wonderful home away from home in Cornwall.