The following article was published in ‘Paddles‘ magazine a few months back, for their ‘Sea Kayaker’s Trident’ column. The column is used as a ‘sounding off’ point for sea paddlers. The article is in part adapted from text in South West Sea Kayaking.
Three of us on the very edge of Britain. The Romans knew this spot as Bellerium, the seat of storms. We call it Land’s End. With their jointed buttresses and pinnacles, the cliffs resemble fortresses. It’s late evening and the sun is an amorphous mass of molten metal as it merges into the Atlantic, punctuated only by the lonely lighthouses of Wolf Rock and Longships. The granite around and above us is set ablaze by the golden light, with quartz, feldspar and mica sparkling brilliantly.
We agree that this might just be among our best sea kayaking experiences ever, but even so it’s hard to relax. Out here on the tip of Cornwall, complex and erratic tides swirl together as the English Channel and the Celtic Sea vie for dominance. The tide races whipped up at the foot of each headland are lively enough, even without the sets of rollers rumbling in from Brazil. They surge rhythmically underneath us with deceptive mildness before exploding with deep booms up 60m walls. We work our way from bay to bay, straining our necks to gauge what awaits around each corner. Eventually, we reach our destination and drag our kayaks onto sand as the last light fades away.
Earlier on, we paddled past Tater Du lighthouse, an unprepossessing edifice perched on a black greenstone outcrop which is brightened by yellow xanthoria lichen. Close by, traces of the MV Union Star can still be seen amongst the rocks. On 19th December 1981, this coaster suffered engine failure and was blown towards shore by a hurricane. As the urgency of the situation became clear to the Coastguard at Falmouth, the Penlee lifeboat was requested to launch. The crew emptied out of pubs in the tiny community of Mousehole and reported for duty. Before the Solomon Browne slid down its ramp into towering waves, Coxswain Trevelyan Richards refused to allow the son of one crew member to board, saying “No more than one from any family on a night like this”.
The Solomon Brown found the Union Star on the point of striking the coast. In an astonishing feat of seamanship, Richards managed to bring the Solomon Browne alongside the Union Star through rocks and 16m breakers, the lifeboat actually being flung onto the larger ship’s deck at one point. Four survivors were somehow picked up. However, when the lifeboat returned for the remaining crew, radio contact with Falmouth abruptly ceased. What happened is unclear, but gradually the unthinkable truth became apparent; all eight lifeboatmen of the Solomon Browne had been lost to the storm, as well as all eight crew of the Union Star.
Today, the Penlee lifeboat station stands closed and shuttered; no lifeboat has since launched down the ramp. The current Penlee lifeboat is berthed close by in Newlyn harbour. The eight lifeboatmen of the Solomon Browne were all unpaid volunteers. They didn’t have to risk their own lives and their families’ futures by going to the aid of the crew of the Union Star, but they did. All were posthumously honoured with RNLI medals. Outside the lifeboat station, a memorial records the inconceivable sacrifice made by the community of Mousehole. The plaque listing the men’s names is headed, ‘SERVICE NOT SELF’.
As we change into dry clothes on a Cornish beach, we are pleased that our trip has been a success. Self-satisfied though we are, none of us are vain enough to assume that our passage through this wild and unforgiving environment has been a foregone conclusion. Only by the grace of Triton and Poseidon have we arrived safely at our destination. On a different day, our luck, skills or judgement might have failed us, and still it might, the next day or perhaps the next. When this occasion comes, we will be glad and honoured to know that assistance is coming from the men and women volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
The RNLI save lives at sea. Support them. www.rnli.org.uk