Tom Cunliffe writes:
For fifty glorious years from the time of the 1861 Pilotage Act until the Great War nailed down the coffin lid on commercial sail, the Bristol Channel was a free-for-all for competitive piloting. This great funnel of tide-swept water stood wide open for the men of Bristol and Cardiff, as well as hard-sailing pilots from Barry, Newport and the rest, to thrash their way westwards to Land’s End and beyond, winter and summer, to be first to offer their services to any ship which came along.
Because of their numbers, availability, suitable size, handy performance and first-class sea-keeping abilities, Bristol Channel pilot cutters were sought-after by cruising yachtsmen when they were pensioned off following the war. At that time, changes in the upstairs/downstairs structure of society at large were militating against the ubiquitous paid hands of the Edwardian and Victorian periods. Corinthian cruising was on the up and the pilot cutter fitted the bill perfectly. A lot were disposed of for popular prices not dissimilar to those the pilots had paid for them in the first place: £250 to £350 ready for sea in all respects, complete with sails and crockery, was not unusual.
The life of many a pilot cutter began afresh when she made the long beat down-Channel for the last time with yachtsmen as crew. Typically, after sale, a boat would be ‘tarted up’. A few of the changes wrought by the enthusiastic amateurs who now ran them were real improvements, others were imaginary and would never have been countenanced by the pilots, even if bank-rolled by somebody else. Fortunately, one or two boats survived without major alteration to show how they were in their heyday.
No rules were ever drawn up as to what sort of boat the pilots were to sail, yet the type developed universally into flush-decked gaff cutters in the order of fifty feet long that could be sailed in all weathers by a crew of two. This was often a man and an apprentice in addition to the pilot, some of whom rarely sullied their hands on a rope.
The cutters had done great service to shipping and had been world-famous among commercial seamen, yet it was the yachtsmen who brought them to a wider public eye. The greatest of these by a long sea-mile was H. W. Tilman, and it was he who inspired me to own one.
I acquired the 1911 Barry pilot cutter Hirta in 1981 and stayed with her for fifteen years. I sailed her from Europe to North America, Greenland, Soviet Russia, the Caribbean and all sorts of holes in between. She was 51ft on deck and displaced 35 tons. In the early years of my tenancy she carried a flax gaff mainsail on a solid 30ft boom which two young men could barely lift. Her working rig was completed with a pair of headsails and a gaff topsail set from a 15ft solid pine yard. Rigged in 1911 for all weathers by Pilot George Morrice (Channel Licence number 25), she was so little changed when I bought her that she still had no electric lighting. Any alterations I did make brought her closer to the pilot’s intentions and each one made her even easier to sail.
Hirta still had her original pitch-pine mast and boom when I sold her. She had no winches and her rig had never been compromised by the usual yachtsman’s addition of superfluous running backstays. We learned, as did the pilots before us, to handle her with a small crew. Sometimes, in the latter years, this was only my wife, my teenage daughter and myself. With no autopilot, I sailed her two-handed from Southampton to Orkney and never felt the need for a third person.
Hirta was gentle and predictable. Even when I asked her to do something she didn’t like the look of, she would never behave erratically. In truth, she was the best-mannered boat I ever sailed in forty-five years of professional yachting, but she had to be treated with respect. Given the power and weight involved, there was only going to be one winner if I got into a fight with her, and that wouldn’t be me.
In their day, pilot cutters kept the sea in every variety of calm and storm. Reefing and heaving to were so routine that the hull shape and sail plan evolved to meet these needs as well as serving the over-riding demand for tolerably good performance. This means that, unlike a modern yacht, a pilot cutter will stop as well as she will go. Like all sailing craft of the pre-auxiliary engine era, however, there had to be sufficient sail area for light winds.
Today, things are different, and in my time even Hirta had an engine. She also had a feathering propeller and I used to get a huge kick out of sailing her as she was born to be sailed, sometimes beating to my mooring far up the narrow, busy Beaulieu River and picking it up under sail. Such boat handling has to be seen as a sort of mutually agreed-to situation wherein the boat does what the skipper asks, but always in her own sweet time. In all those years we shared, Hirta never let me down.
The pilot cutter suited Bill Tilman’s character to a tee. Although far from young, she was tough, reliable, didn’t suffer fools and kept going no matter what misfortune befell. His early voyages in her were built on a scant sailing background, but Mischief looked after him famously. Although she was unrestored and probably in many ways ‘no better than she should have been’, he admired her steadiness in bad weather and, thanks in no little part to the sterling remedial work carried out on her by Berthon in Lymington, her stout construction and heavy scantlings always gave her a second chance when put to the ice. Having had no hands-on dealings with modern yachts, it probably never occurred to him that her lack of manoeuvrability under power was any sort of a drawback.
So satisfied was Tilman with Mischief that when she was finally lost he went out and bought a second of her type, after a decent period of mourning. After Sea Breeze was lost in the ice, his third boat, Baroque, continued the establishment of the Bristol Channel pilot cutter as the vessel of choice for high-latitude adventurers. It was years more before sailors like David and Judy Lomax in their standard 35ft Bénéteau Cloud Walker showed that there could be a different way.
Three pilot boats made Tilman as a sailor. It can also be said that, through the medium of his wonderful books, his work confirmed the Bristol Channel cutter’s reputation among the great sea-boats of all time.