photo: Ros Cun­liffe

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.