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Bristol Pilot Cutters

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Bristol Pilot Cutters

The Bristol Channel is a notorious stretch of water. Boasting the second highest tidal range in the world, it requires great skill and detailed local knowledge to safely navigate the strong currents, sandbanks and frequent high winds. In years gone by, without the comfort and convenience of modern navigational aids, these qualities were even more in demand.

The city of Bristol has always been a vital trading port and the ongoing industrial revolution during the 19th century brought further opportunities to the area in terms of international trade. Ships sailed from around the globe to Bristol and relied on local pilots to steer their precious cargo to dry land. The pilots themselves needed reliable vessels to help them carry out this work and out of this need was born the Bristol Pilot Cutter. This vessel has often been referred to as the best designed sailing boat of all time and remains a benchmark for performance and design today.

The single-masted wooden cutter was designed for speed and specifically adapted for use in the difficult fast moving waters. Experienced pilots of the time were in great demand and the pickings were rich, so the design of these sailing boats constantly evolved as the self-employed pilots competed to win the most lucrative jobs. The cutters were relatively small in size (typically 30 to 50 feet long) with a deep hull. Their clever design made them easy to handle and steer, often requiring a crew of only two men, one of them an apprentice. They could sail out at great speed for hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean to meet the large cargo laden ships and manoeuvre alongside them to allow the pilot to board safely.

The majority of the earlier pilots and vessels originated from a village called Pill, near Bristol, but by the end of the 19th century there was fierce competition from other ports, most notably along the South Wales coastline. The years between 1890 and the outbreak of WW1 were undoubtedly the pinnacle for these vessels, helping the British Empire to grow and develop vital international trade. Soon though, the emergence of steam and diesel engines would bring this golden era to an end.

By 1920 the faster and more efficient steam driven ships had all but replaced the sail cutters, although one or two remained in service for a short while. The final Bristol Pilot Cutter eventually retired in 1922. There are thought to be 18 of these fabulous sailing boats left in existence, out of the many hundreds that were built. These survivors are scattered across the globe, most of them privately owned. Some have been converted into yachts, while others are used as private hire vessels or displayed at maritime events.

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