An incident of rare tragedy occurred in the usually sheltered and innocent Isles on 1 October 1999. On a stormy evening a series of red flares could be seen lighting the skies above Peninnis. Reports of the lifeboat maroon going off were unconfirmed but by about 10 pm, the majority of the population had realised that there was a search and rescue mission underway, serious enough to call the lifeboat out late at knight and for a helicopter from RNAS Culdrose to be scrambled.


As is uniform, people who spotted the flares called 999 in order to reach the Coastguard to inform them of the flares. One local said, “I phoned up almost immediately, the Coastguard said that they were already aware of an incident. I was impressed at how quick the response was”. Within minutes the Arun class lifeboat was on the scene, south of Peninnis, and a rescue helicopter was seen overhead a short time later. Islanders could only guess that a vessel of some description had run aground, presumably on Peninnis. It was later discovered that these were launched by St Mary’s Coastguard in an attempt to light up the area of the sea in order to assist the St Mary’s Lifeboat in their quest to look for survivors of a fishing boat that had run aground. There was a crew of six fishermen aboard the vessel out of Newlyn, the Rachel Harvey. Within half an hour, all the men had been picked up by the superbly professional lifeboat, however, despite the best efforts of the crew, one man was pronounced dead on arrival at St Mary’s Hospital. This news only filtered through to the public in the morning, mainly via television news and a trial run of Radio Scilly which had started broadcasting the same day. The news was greeted with sadness and great mourning from locals; the Rachel Harvey had been a frequent visitor to the Islands.

It is not entirely clear how the tragedy itself occurred as the vessel effectively hit a headland with a lighthouse situated just a couple of hundred metres away, in moderate visibility. The sight of the shell of the vessel was a ghostly after she was lifted from where she had sunk and brought around to St Mary’s harbour, her wind speed indicator still spinning slowly around and with crab pots still on the deck. A large gash could clearly be seen on her starboard bow, below the waterline. The incident had obviously occurred at some speed. The sight of the vessel that would usually be greeted with intrigue, was left alone in respect of the dead crew member The boat was later filled with foam and towed back to the mainland.

It remains unclear how a tragedy like this could be allowed to occur with today’s technology but blame for the incident had largely been bypassed as the thoughts and prayers remain with the dead man and his family.