THE wife of a skipper whose heavily-laden pilchard boat sank in Mount's Bay last week has described her husband's safe homecoming as "the best Christmas present ever".
Martin Ellis, 45, of Ruan Minor, had a narrow escape when his 30ft vessel the Penrose went down in heavy weather last Thursday night.
Thanks to survival training, the emergency services - and a mobile phone, Mr Ellis and his two crew were safely back at home just hours after the fishing boat sank a mile and a half off St Michael's Mount.
The Penrose set out from Newlyn at around 5pm, with crew members Carl Thomas, 27 from Hayle, and Patrick Harvey, 30 from Newlyn, making their first trip on the boat.
By around 9pm, the men had made a good catch of between 400 and 500 stone of pilchards - worth around £1,000 - and were heading for home.
"The wind was freshening quite quickly and we were low in the water because of the weight of the fish," said Mr Ellis.
"We had the deck lights on so couldn't see the waves coming, but several big waves went over us and she started to go down to port."
Concerned at the situation - and with the boat's radio not functioning - Mr Ellis had earlier used his mobile phone to alert Nick Howell, of the Pilchard Works at Newlyn.
Mr Howell rang coastguards at Falmouth, who arranged to keep in touch with the Penrose by telephone - but after one call the boat was swamped by the waves.
"We blew up our lifejackets, and one of the crew got the life raft off the roof of the wheelhouse," said Mr Ellis.
"The boat was going over very slowly and I knocked her out of gear to stop her going ahead. The other two men were already in the water and I made sure they were clear before saying a prayer and jumping in to join them.
As I went under, the water was all bright because the lights of the boat were shining under water - I remember thinking it was like a disco down there.
Reality hit me when I surfaced and realised it wasn't a dream and we had to get together and get into the life raft."
Minutes later, all three men were in the life raft and letting off flares to alert the emergency services.
An on-shore auxiliary coastguard saw their flares and sent one up to let the crew know he had spotted them.
Martin Ellis... "We hadn't thought we were in danger"
Less than 20 minutes later, the Penlee lifeboat Mabel Alice and a search and rescue helicopter from RNAS Culdrose were on the scene.
Mr Ellis said: "We heard the lifeboat coming towards us and let our last flare off. The Penrose sank just as the lifeboat reached us. They had dry clothes for us to put on before we got to the Fishermen's Mission at Newlyn.
"The cup of tea and custard creams we had there were some of the best I've ever tasted!"
Back home in Ruan Minor, the skipper paid tribute to the lifeboat and helicopter crews, and to the training association which taught him "vital" survival skills.
"I've always been safety conscious, but it's not until something like this happens that you realise how important sea survival exercises are.
"What happened was frightening because we hadn't thought we were in any danger and the waves were not that big, but because of the training procedures we had what's being described as a textbook rescue."
Mr Ellis' wife, Sally, said having her husband home safe was all that mattered.
"They rang to let me know there was a problem, but I thought they meant the boat had engine trouble.
By the time I found out she had sunk, they told me the men had all been safely rescued, but in between was very nerve-wracking.
Having him back here with me and the family is wonderful. It's the best Christmas present ever."
The Penrose, worth £30,000 is in 27 metres of water, but Mr Ellis said she was unharmed and he was hopeful she could be brought to the surface.
Helston Packet - 23rd December 1999