Pilot Cutters

Sailing pilot boats represented the best performing, fastest and most seaworthy vessels of their era.

They were used to carry pilots out to ships approaching the British Isles and Bristol Channel ports.

These boats were usually manned by one man and an apprentice in addition to the pilot, and often went seeking ships hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic.

Speed was important; the nature of the job asked for a fast and seaworthy boat that could hold its own racing in open competition with other pilots. Also a boat that could stay at sea in weather that would send most other vessels scurrying for port. They had an easy motion and would look after their crews, hoving-to safely and quietly in extremely heavy seas.

Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters moored at Pill, on the River Avon.

Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters moored at Pill, on the River Avon.


 A seaworthy but slow craft would not have been tolerated by pilots of the Bristol Channel, whose livelihoods depended on reaching incoming ships before the competition.

The remarkable thing about Pilot Cutter design was the way it evolved. Pilots and builders were constantly experimenting to gain advantage over the competition, developing by eye and experience a boat that was not only fast, but could really stand up to the elements.

With their deep hull, long keel, heavy displacement and powerful gaff cutter rig, many are of the opinion that ninety years of yacht design have not produced a better sailing boat than the last of the sailing Pilot Cutters.

The Pilot Cutter has always been the benchmark for yacht designers striving for the most seaworthy of performance boats.

“ That they fulfilled their function admirably may be guessed when I say that I could find no record of one of those ships being lost through stress of weather”.

“Remember we are speaking of the Bristol Channel in winter. One yachtsman I knew used to take off his hat and keep a moment’s silence if anyone mentioned cruising this area in his presence. The gesture was not meant as a joke.”

Quotes from: Messing around in Boats by Surgeon Rear – Admiral John R. Muir.

Clear decks of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter.

Clear decks of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter.

Bristol Channel Pilotage

The most dangerous stage of the voyage for merchant shipping was the last part: closing land and heading for port. The pilots of the Bristol Channel earned their living by seeking merchant vessels approaching land and used their detailed knowledge of local navigation to pilot (guide) them safely into port.

The ship owners and merchants realised that paying a pilot was a small price for the safety of their vessel and cargo. This is why the service existed, and a successful pilot could become a rich man.

The Bristol Channel pilots became specialised, as there was a lot of shipping entering the Channel to Barry, Bristol, Cardiff, Newport and Swansea etc. The dangers to navigation were formidable, with up to 45ft (13.5m) of tides and currents hitting 7 knots, faster than many of the ships entering the Channel.

The pilots of the Bristol Channel worked privately; it was every man for himself. The Pilot Cutters would race westwards to meet the incoming ships (hence the pilot crews were known as Westernmen). The pickings were rich if you could get them, which meant being the first out to the incoming ship, racing and outwitting the other pilots. The results were unparalleled seamanship, and the evolution of very fast, very able boats.

Once alongside the incoming ship, the boy or apprentice would row the pilot to the merchant vessel, where the pilot would scramble aboard. It is a testimony to the design of the punts (clinker rowing boats) that this could often take place whilst it was “blowing a hooli”.

The Pilot Cutters were usually crewed by a man and a boy (or apprentice) and the pilot on the outward journey. Once the pilot was aboard an incoming ship, the Pilot Cutters would race back to port and pick up the pilot from wherever the ship berthed. Sometimes the ships would tow the Pilot Cutters, which was very unpopular with the crews (see photo below).

Pilot Cutter Cymro under tow in the Bristol Channel

Pilot Cutter Cymro under tow in the Bristol Channel


With thanks to the Late Peter J Stuckey, for the Historic Pilot Cutter Images and Illustration.

Pilot Cutter off 'Flatholm' in the Bristol Channel

Pilot Cutter off 'Flatholm' in the Bristol Channel

History of the Pilot Cutter "Mischief"

The original “Mischief” was a 45ft Pilot Cutter built by Thomas Baker at Cardiff in 1906 for 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”.

Mischief in Malta

Mischief in Malta

After her working life of fifteen years, she was sold out of service, and had various owners until she ended up in Malta, where in 1954 she was bought by the legendary explorer and mountaineer Bill Tilman. This inveterate adventurer, then sailed her a hundred and ten thousand miles from the Antarctic to the Arctic, including Patagonia, Greenland, South Georgia and Heard Island in search of mountains to climb.

Tilman wrote six books detailing his expeditions with Mischief, she was a very able boat, and looked after her crew exceptionally well, until a sad day in 1968 when she hit a rock, and was then crushed by ice, sinking off Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Replica of'Mischief' sailing in the Bristol Channel

Replica of'Mischief' sailing in the Bristol Channel

Tilman records the loss of Mischief thus: 

“For me it was the loss of more than a yacht. I felt like one who had first betrayed and then deserted a stricken friend; a friend with whom for the past fourteen years I had spent more time at sea than on land, and who, when not at sea, had seldom been out of my thoughts. Moreover, I could not but think that by my mistakes and by the failure of one of those who where there to serve her we had broken faith; that the disaster or sequence of disasters need not have happened; and that more might have been done to save her. I shall never forget her.”

Bill Tilman owned two more Pilot Cutters, "Sea Breeze", and "Baroque" which still survives today, but “Mischief” was always his favourite boat.