Cornwall, December 19th 1981. It was an appalling night with hurricane force twelve winds, mountainous seas, driving rain and very poor visibility.  Surveying the scene, one experienced fisherman said to his wife, ‘I wouldn’t want to be out in that’. But people were out in it.

 A ship in distress

The 67 metre long coaster, Union Star, was out in it and she was in deep trouble.  Water had got into her engines and they had failed.  The ship was adrift and heading for the rocks.  For whatever reason the captain seems to have delayed calling for help and by the time he did the situation was critical.

A search and rescue helicopter was sent out but couldn’t get a line down to the ship because of the huge seas.  A lifeboat from Sennen Cove was also despatched but couldn’t make it to the scene because of the dreadful conditions.  But another lifeboat from Penlee near Mousehole, the Solomon Browne, forced its way through a ninety-knot gale to arrive at the Union Star as she was rising and falling forty feet on the swell.

Bravery beyond words

People standing on the cliffs watched as, again and again, the coxswain of the Solomon Browne, Trevelyan Richards, drove his boat in towards the Union Star, sometimes hitting it.  Even when the coaster was right in the broken surf, just metres from the base of a cliff, the Solomon Browne went in too. That required almost insane courage.

Another extraordinary sight was to follow. Through the dark night and storm, witnesses reported seeing the eight-man lifeboat actually on the deck of the Union Star.  A huge wave appears to have hurled it there before it slid stern-first back into the foaming waters.  Then, at 9.12 pm, a radio call was received from the Solomon Browne:  ‘Falmouth Coastguard, this is the Penlee lifeboat.  We got four off at the moment, male and female.  There’s two left on board … ‘

And then the transmission was cut short and nothing more was heard from the Solomon Browne.  It seems it was making one more attempt to rescue the final two people.  Was the lifeboat smashed to pieces against the cliff or against the ship or did the Union Star roll on top of it?  Noone will ever know because the Solomon Browne was lost and there were no survivors from either vessel.

Russel Smith, the helicopter pilot – himself remarkably brave – later described what he had witnessed as ‘the greatest act of courage I have ever seen and am ever likely to see.’

Courage and us

Such feats of courage are almost superhuman and hopefully beyond what most of us will be called upon to display.  But we will all need lesser degrees of bravery in our daily lives and some of the things we face will still require a courage that stretches us to our limits.  It may be speaking in public when that terrifies us, it may be standing up to a bully, it may be starting psychotherapy, it may be speaking out in a roomful of people against something that is wrong when everyone else is silent.

A crossroads

A woman I once knew faced a crossroads in her relationship with courage, after a lifetime of running away from things.  One day at work a difficult and intimidating male colleague who worked for her made a mess of an important project and thought he’d done a wonderful job.  During the lunch break another colleague said to the woman, ‘This afternoon you go back in there and you tell him straight what you think’.

Quaking in her boots, she returned to the office and did exactly that.  The male colleague exploded in fury, refused to listen and stormed out.  Two days later he came back and apologized.  For the woman it was a turning point.  She never again backed down and in subsequent years went through all kinds of fire and storm, growing stronger all the time.

The effect of courage

I say ‘growing stronger’ because that’s what courage does. It breeds more courage and strengthens what I’d call the central self. If we constantly avoid frightening situations we will be diminished as people and imprisoned in a prison of our own making.  We will lose our freedom.  And that’s not a price worth paying.

Winston Churchill knew what he was talking about when he said, ‘Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities … because it is the quality which guarantees all others.’

Psychotherapy and courage

I mentioned above starting psychotherapy as an act of courage and so it is because making oneself vulnerable by talking intimately with (initially) a stranger takes guts. And continuing to bring oneself honestly to sessions week after week requires yet more guts. But that in itself is healthy and healing and strengthening.  And a process like group psychotherapy where you’re encouraged to speak your mind to other people in the moment and not to sit on what you’re thinking and feeling builds up a courage that can then be transferred to the outside world.


Maybe it’s no bad thing to be thinking about the subject of courage at Christmas. The festival celebrates a major new birth.  And daring to act with ever greater courage could mean the birth of a new you.