Bristol Channel pilot cutter

A Bristol Channel pilot cutter is a specialised sailing boat the style and design of which is derived from the single-masted cutter. Based upon bulkier, less nimble fishing boats but modified for use in the strong tides, winds, currents and coastline of the Bristol Channel its purpose was to quickly ferry local maritime pilots to and from large ships to assist in safe navigation into or out of port cities in the Channel. The speed and manoeuvrability of the cutters allowed a minimal crew in almost any weather. They could quickly arrive at and easily lie alongside larger ships for safe transfer of pilots. The craft was equipped to remain on station for days or even weeks, awaiting arrivals outside the channel.

The design has been described as the best sailing boat design ever,[1] for being both high speed, highly manoeuvrable and yet easy to handle by just two crew.

With the advent of steam engines and metal vessels, wooden sailing cutters fell out of use and many were sold and later lost. Only a few of the many Bristol Channel pilot cutters survive today.



When used to refer to sailing boats, a cutter is a utility vessel, single-masted and with a small crew (as few as two but often five or more) fore-and-aft rigged, with two or more headsails and often a bowsprit. A cutter's mast may be set farther back than on a sloop.[2] Cutters most often found utility in coastal work, either as patrol, ferry, packet or light cargo.

Bristol Channel

The Bristol Channel is one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world, due to its huge tidal range of over 14 metres (46 ft)[3] - second only to the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada[4][5] - currents hitting 7 knots (8.1 mph) (faster than many sailing ships of the day); all combining to hide rocks and constantly shifting sand bars.

Today there are no road or rail crossings of the Bristol Channel, so direct crossings are made by sea or air, or less directly by the road and rail crossings via the River Severn estuary. The Channel can be a hazardous area of water because of its strong tides and the rarity of havens on the north Devon and Somerset coasts that can be entered in all states of the tide. Because of the treacherous waters, pilotage is an essential service for shipping.

As Bristol developed as a regional trading and financial centre, and as coal exports and the metal making industries rose in the South Wales Valleys as local sources of metal ore dwindled, the volume of shipping into and out of the Bristol Channel rose quickly. Owners who didn't want to lose valuable ships or cargo needed local knowledge of the wind, tides and underwater hazards.

Design and performance needs

As most fishing boats were purposeful heavy working boats built for capacity of haul and stability, and burdened with heavy damp fishing equipment, those who operated as pilots needed a new type of boat. Early pilot boats were developed from single masted fishing cutter designs and twin masted yawls and latterly into the specialist pilot cutter.


Bristol Channel pilot cutters are generally seen as the most successful fore and aft rigged boats built during the age of sail. The keys of a good design were:[6]

  • Speed and draught: pilots were in competition, with each other and the weather. The speed and relatively shallow draught allowed them access throughout a range of tides.[7]
  • Seaworthiness: boats were required to race to ships in the heavy Atlantic Ocean waves of the winter, being able to operate in all weather conditions, whilst keeping the crew safe on the journey.
  • Manoeuvrability and control: in addition to speedily reaching an incoming ship, a pilot cutter had to be able to lie to and safely transfer the pilot to the larger ship in all weather. The reverse of this process also occurred as the local pilot had to be taken off any outbound merchantmen.
  • Ease of handling: fewer crew and easier handling meant higher profits and a more relaxed working environment in many weather conditions

Base form

The base design was based on a combination of a deep hull, long keel, heavy displacement and powerful gaff cutter rig. This made a lightweight and overpowered single masted boat with large steeply angled keels, making it deep draught under power and shallow draught in lighter sail.[8] Competition between different builders and commissioning owners enabled the design to improve over more than 90 years.[9] This continual experimentation to gain slight advantages created a fast boat that could operate in all weathers, resulting in what in the opinion of many was the best sailing boat design ever. As Admiral John R. Muir summarised:[10]


Pilot skiffs had developed for many years, but the earliest records date to 1795 held by Bristol Museum, which lists 12 registered pilot cutters with tonnages raging from 14 to 24 tons. The records of other ports suggest that older surviving cutters ranged in length between 33 feet (10 m) and 40 feet (12 m).[6] The earliest photographs of a cutter are of the boat Trial of Pill-based pilot Thomas Vowles (1847–78), showing a square rig sail that was a common feature on early cutters.[6]

Few period plans or detailed drawings exist, as often the builders were illiterate and as the designs developed from boat to boat, the blueprint for the next boat was taken from measuring and the experience of building the last boat, or from half-hull scale models which were then adapted. As a result, lengths in the 19th century varied between 40 feet (12 m) and 50 feet (15 m).[6] Construction methods were common, with frames of English oak, planking of English elm, hulls sealed by pitch pine and interior fittings made of imported teak.[6] The boats had high bulwarks of between 1 foot 6 inches (0.46 m) and 2 feet (0.61 m), with a removable section through which a white-painted clinker-built rowing punt of 13 feet (4.0 m) could easily be put over the side.[6] Punts were painted white to allow them to be seen at night, and traditionally stored on the cutter's port-side.[6]

Speed was profit, and so in summer the sails were made of cotton, and in winter of flax. There were four sets of reefing points, with later designs encompassing roller-reefing, which although bringing its own boat handling advantages, meant that the chances of a broken boom crippling the boat were higher.[6] The size, scale and number of any headsails were a captain's personal choice, but were often be used to fool other pilots into thinking that they were being passed by a fishing boat, or as a signature to be recognised by approaching cargo boat captains.[6]


Most early pilots were local boatmen or fisherman who undertook both jobs, latterly licensed by the local Harbour Master to operate within their jurisdiction. Pilots in the Bristol channel are, and always have been self-employed, hence quickest transport meant greater income. ' No ships, no money !'.

Pilots in the Bristol Channel were self-employed, and indeed the current Bristol pilots still are. They were based at ports and harbours along the Welsh and English coastlines. Bristol's pilots were actually based at Pill, Somerset, which consequently became a local boat building centre.[6] The relationship between Pill and Bristol was always strained due to the distribution of the locally collected taxes, which was not solved until the passing of the 1807 Bristol Channel Pilotage Act.[6]

Pilots in the Bristol Channel had their own cutters, which were manned by a Westernmen and a boy. The cutters raced westwards to meet the incoming ships in the Western Approaches of the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Pilots either owned their own or shared cutters, which were permanently manned by a pilot, western man and a boy, one of whom was often an apprentice pilot .[9] Once a pilot had negotiated a price for pilotage with the master of an inbound vessel, the pilot would board the vessel and the pilot cutter, would follow in the capable hands of the western man and the boy, to be reunited at Hungroad or Kingroad.

Records from Pill suggest that the first official Bristol Channel pilot was barge master George James Ray, appointed by the Corporation of Bristol in May 1497 to pilot John Cabot's Matthew from Bristol harbour to the open sea beyond. However, this is more likely legend as no written records exist.[6] In 1837 Pilot George Ray guided Brunel's SS Great Western, and in 1844 William Ray piloted the larger SS Great Britain on her maiden voyage.[11]


Cutters would leave their home-port in the Channel for the Western Approaches in all weathers, either having been previously contracted by a shipping line to do so, or more frequently as self-employed individuals in competition with other pilots.[6][9]

From 1858 whilst in transit, cutters were required by law to display white side lights, but often on the outbound leg these were turned off so as to give a westerly advantage over the competition.[6] Once on station — a situation that could last for a few weeks — the boats were required to display a pilot flag, which in 1849 became the white over red flag still in use today. At night, paraffin (kerosene in U.S. English) flares were required to be fired, with each port having its own sequence; Bristol's was two shorts and a long.[6]

Once a ship was encountered, whilst the cargo vessel heaved-to the cutter would pull-in on the lee-side. The apprentice would then row the pilot in the punt to the vessel, whilst the captain would sail-clear. The cutter would return once the pilot was on board and the vessel underway. If the cutter had two pilots on board, the sequence would be repeated for a second vessel. If not, she would race home.[6]

Once steam power began to replace sail in cargo vessels some cutters would be towed back in,[6] a practice unpopular with both the vessels' and the cutters' crews.[9]

Off duty

When not racing into the Western Approaches, cutter captains would take place in port-based "reviews", which were a local mixture of parading and open challenge-based racing. When in windy conditions, cutters would regularly win these open races against professional racing crews, when with full sails on they would reach speeds in excess of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).[6] Ilfracombe was a popular annual Review, which with its long flat firm sands provided a good place for repairs, as well as a good holiday location for the crew's families during the week.[6]

End of sail

In 1913, all of the Cardiff pilots were amalgamated into a new company, the Steam Pilot Boat Company (Cardiff and Bristol Channel) Limited.[12] The company, licensed to operate all pilots in the Bristol Channel, had commissioned a series of new steam powered pilot boats which were to be worked out of Barry Docks. The new company did not buy the then in-service sail cutters, which remained owned by their captains. This started the process of many being sold into service as private yachts. The process of amalgamation was stopped during World War I, but due to their design and speed, the last pilot cutters retired in the early 1920s once the new steam and diesel technology had overtaken them in speed and efficiency. Cariad was the last sail-powered pilot cutter to retire in 1922.[13]


Mischief was a 45 feet (14 m) Bristol Channel pilot cutter built by Thomas Baker of Cardiff in 1906. She was commissioned and sailed by pilot William “Billy the Mischief” Morgan, who once sailed her into Ilfracombe harbour in such appalling weather that he and his boat earned great respect from the local pilots for "a first class piece of seamanship."[9]

After being sold in 1921, she was owned by various commercial owners and then ended up in Valletta, Malta, where in 1954 the mountaineer and explorer Bill Tilman purchased her. After a refit, he sailed her over 110,000 miles (180,000 km), from the Antarctic to the Arctic, including stops in Patagonia, Greenland, South Georgia and Heard Island. Tilman wrote six books during his adventures in Mischief, until in 1968 she hit a rock off Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean, and then began to sink before being crushed by ice.[9]

Tilman continued his adventures in two other Bristol Channel pilot cutters, Sea Breeze and Baroque. Invited in his 80th year in 1977 to work as expert crew aboard the Simon Richardson skippered En Avant with mountaineers sailing to climb Smith Island, the ship disappeared with all hands whilst en route between Rio de Janeiro and the Falkland Islands.[14]

In 2007 a new Mischief was commissioned and built by RB Boat Building.[15]


Today only 18 original cutters are believed to survive from the hundreds built. Some are available for private charter, whilst many attend maritime rallies and occasionally join the Barry Yacht Club's annual Cock of the Bristol Channel race:[16]

Name Date Builder Original Owner Length Beam Draft Displacement Current Location Notes Website
Alpha 1904 William Stober, Fleetwood William Prosser 52 feet (16 m) 14.6 feet (4.5 m) 8.5 feet (2.6 m) 36 tonnes (35 long tons; 40 short tons) Shuna Island, Scotland Privately owned
Baroque 1902 J Hambly, Cardiff 50.2 feet (15.3 m) 13.5 feet (4.1 m) 8.5 feet (2.6 m) 32 tonnes (31 long tons; 35 short tons) Stockholm, Sweden Privately owned
Breeze 1887 J.Cooper, Pill 38 feet (12 m) 12 feet (3.7 m) Somerset Privately owned
Cariad 1904 Edwin "Cracker" Rowles, Pill Thomas Richards, Cardiff 47 feet (14 m) 12.75 feet (3.89 m) 7.5 feet (2.3 m) 30 tonnes (30 long tons; 33 short tons) Dartmouth, Devon Cariad (Welsh language for Loved One) was by 1922 the last working sail-powered pilot cutter.[12] Bought by Frank Carr as his private yacht, she featured in his 1936 book A Yachtsman's Log. Preserved in 1972 at the Exeter Maritime Museum, after its dissolution she was resold into private ownership. Relaunched in 2006 after an extensive refit.[13] Sailed by Tom Cunliffe in the fifth episode of Boats that Built Britain.[1]
Carlotta 1899 WH Halford, Gloucester 50 feet (15 m) 13 feet (4.0 m) 8 feet (2.4 m) 28 tonnes (28 long tons; 31 short tons) British Columbia, Canada Originally launched as The Solway, where in Maryport and Whitehaven, Cumbria she acted as the fisheries police boat. Sold in 1907, she has since operated as a private yacht. Privately owned
Cornubia 1911 J Slade & Sons, Fowey Morrice, Barry 52 feet (16 m) 13.7 feet (4.2 m) 7.3 feet (2.2 m) 30 tonnes (30 long tons; 33 short tons) Plymouth, Devon After being sold in 1917, she was renamed Hirta after an island owned by her owner. Most famous as being owned by Tom Cunliffe, who cruised her extensively including visits to Greenland and the United States. Cunliffe sold her, after which she was extensively refitted, and now contains only 11 original timbers.
Dolphin 1909 J.Bowden, Porthleven 38.8 feet (11.8 m) 11.5 feet (3.5 m) 7.5 feet (2.3 m) 19 tonnes (19 long tons; 21 short tons) Northern Europe The only surviving cutter with a transom stern, apart from Breeze which originally had a counter stern. Privately owned
Frolic 1905 J.Westmacott, Bideford Alf Edwards, Cardiff 55 feet (17 m) 13.4 feet (4.1 m) 8.7 feet (2.7 m) 35 tonnes (34 long tons; 39 short tons) Norway The only surviving cutter with a transom stern, apart from Breeze which originally had a counter stern. Privately owned
Kindly Light 1911 Armour Brothers, Fleetwood Lewis Alexander, Barry 53.97 feet (16.45 m) 14.49 feet (4.42 m) 8.49 feet (2.59 m) 20 tonnes (20 long tons; 22 short tons) Gweek, Cornwall New pilot Lewis Alexander of Barry commissioned Armour Brothers of Fleetwood to build a pilot cutter for him because William Stoba, the foreman shipwright who had designed ALPHA, the highly successful Newport pilot cutter of 1904, worked for them. Launched in 1911, at £500 she cost 40% more than the standard price for a cutter. After being laid-up during WWI, she was considered the fastest of 100 cutters still working post-war. Privately preserved, she is on the register of National Historic Ships.[17][18]
Letty 1905 E.Rowles, Pill 52.5 feet (16.0 m) 13.5 feet (4.1 m) 8.5 feet (2.6 m) Cornwall
Madcap 1875 Davies & Plain, Cardiff 43.2 feet (13.2 m) 12.3 feet (3.7 m) 7.5 feet (2.3 m) 22 tonnes (22 long tons; 24 short tons) Belfast, Northern Ireland Sold in 2014 to a French consortium and overhauled in La Rochelle.[19]
Marguerite 1893 E.Rowles, Pill Frank Trott 53 feet (16 m) 13 feet 10 inches (4.22 m) 8.3 feet (2.5 m) 35 tonnes (34 long tons; 39 short tons) River Fal, Cornwall Built for Frank Trott, he had her fitted with a tug’s towing hook to the fore side after steam-powered cargo ship became common, to allow them to tow Marguerite back into port.
Marian 1889 J Hambly, Cardiff 50 feet (15 m) 12.9 feet (3.9 m) 7.8 feet (2.4 m) 28 tonnes (28 long tons; 31 short tons) Cornwall
Mascotte 1904 Thomas Cox, Newport 60 feet (18 m) 15 feet (4.6 m) 9.5 feet (2.9 m) 44 tonnes (43 long tons; 49 short tons) Arisaig, Scotland Privately owned, largest of the surviving boats
Olga 1909 J.Bowden, Porthleven 56 feet (17 m) 13.6 feet (4.1 m) 8.6 feet (2.6 m) 32 tonnes (31 long tons; 35 short tons) Swansea Museum Preserved at the Swansea Museum
Peggy 1904 E.Rowles, Pill Richard Arthur Case 45 feet (14 m) 12.5 feet (3.8 m) 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) 23 tonnes (23 long tons; 25 short tons) Bristol Harbour Originally named Wave, she carried the No.10 on her mainsail. Converted to a yacht in 1920s by Moody's, reregistered asPeggy in London. Owned since 1973 by Mr. Diccon Pridie. Used as the blueprint for the replica-boat Polly Agatha built by Cockwells.[20]
Raider 1910 Kitto, Porthleven George Bennett, Barry 48 feet (15 m) 14 feet (4.3 m) 8.5 feet (2.6 m) 30 tonnes (30 long tons; 33 short tons) Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts Named after George Bennett's daughter, she was converted into a yacht in the early 1920s
Vivacious 1910 J.Slade & Sons, Polruan 48 feet (15 m) 13.25 feet (4.04 m) 7.2 feet (2.2 m) 27 tonnes (27 long tons; 30 short tons) South of France


There are an increasing number of replica boats, often built for the private hire and charter market.


Tom Cunliffe (2013), "The Bristol Channel and its Cutters", Pilot Cutters Under Sail, Seaforth Publishing, p. 146-175, ISBN 9781848321540

  1. Tom Cunliffe, Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, BBC Four
  2. Kemp, Peter, ed. (1976). The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 221–222. a small, decked ship with one mast and bowsprit, with a gaff mainsail on a boom, a square yard and topsail, and two jibs or a jib and a staysail.
  3. "Severn Estuary Barrage". UK Environment Agency. 31 May 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 3 September 2007.
  4. Chan, Marjorie A.; Archer, Allen William (2003). Extreme Depositional Environments: Mega End Members in Geologic Time. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America. p. 151. ISBN 0-8137-2370-1.
  5. "Coast: Bristol Channel". BBC. Retrieved 27 August 2007.
  6. JCB (23 December 2009). "The Bristol Channel Sailing Pilot "Skiffs"". Pilot Magazine. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  7. "Cutters". BCPCOA. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  8. "Pilot Cutters". Cockwells. Archived from the original on 21 July 2013. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  9. "Traditional Pilot Cutter boats". RB Boat Building. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  10. Surgeon Rear. Messing around in Boats.
  11. "History of Pilot Cutters". Annabel J. Archived from the original on 15 November 2009.
  12. "Cariad". BCPCOA. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  13. "Cariad". Cariad. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  14. "The Life and Times of the Legendary Explorer Bill Tilman". Archived from the original on 26 March 2009. Retrieved 5 May 2009.
  15. "Mischief". Mischief Expeditions. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  16. "Pilot cutters at Barry Yacht Club's annual 'Cock of the Bristol Channel' race". Barry & District News. 16 May 2010. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  17. "Kindly Light". National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  18. Paul Brown. Historic Sail. The History Press.
  19. Head, Viv (2017). Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel. Amberley. p. 58. ISBN 978-1445664002.
  20. "Polly Agatha". Polly Agatha. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
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