Bristol Pilot Cutters

During the 17th and 18th centuries Britain increased its foreign trade to become the world’s largest trading nation.  At the heart of that trade lay the major ports on the western side of England, in particular Bristol.

In order for this trade to be successful, it was necessary for ships to find their way to the main ports along the Bristol Channel. It is a dangerous stretch of water, with strong tides and only a few safe havens along the north coast of Cornwall and Devon. Because of this, boat owners sought specialists who could guide their precious cargoes safely in and out of the area.

Piloting is probably one of the oldest professions and requires great expertise, particularly in the days prior to detailed charts and electronic aids. Not only that, it was a competitive occupation. A pilot would seek incoming ships by sailing, at times, beyond Land’s End. His means of transport to those vessels needed to be able to stay at sea, working in all weather, all year. Once a ship had been spotted and the pilot employed, he then needed to transfer from his own boat to the cargo vessel. A dinghy would be launched, put alongside the ship, the pilot put aboard and then the dinghy would return. The apprentice, who usually rowed the dinghy, would then sail back to port with the other crew member.

Remarkably, these boats were operated with a crew of three on the outward leg, were held in place by just a single person before returning home with a crew of two. And this took place whether it was calm or a full winter gale was blowing.

Consequently, the design of the pilot’s boat needed to fulfill certain criteria: it had to be fast, easily handled and capable of sailing in all conditions. However, in many respects it was not a commercial vessel. As its sole purpose was to transfer its cargo of an individual, it meant that it bore the hallmarks of a yacht. Also, there was not a standard design, although they all measured around 50ft in length and shared a single mast with two headsails.

Today, there has been a resurged interest in these boats. Their stability and size have undoubtedly contributed to their popularity, as has their individuality. Older boats have been restored and, as in the case of Morwenna, new boats have been commissioned.

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