The Bristol Channel Sailing Pilot “Skiffs”

In the October 2007 issue I ran a feature on the pilot gigs of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That feature was based on information contained within a, long since out of print, book called “Azook” by Keith Harris who kindly permitted me to freely use his research for my article. In addition to the gigs, the waters of South West England were also frequented by another famous pilot craft, the Bristol Channel sailing skiff, or cutter as it now more commonly known as. Despite the ongoing massive popularity of this sailing design, the only authoritative book on the craft was written in the 1970’s by Peter Stuckey. The book was updated and re-published in 1999 but again has long since been out of print and used copies rarely appear and attract very high prices. At the time of writing there is one copy on the internet in the USA with an asking price of $216! In what was probably my best investment in recent years, I purchased a copy in 1999 when it was republished and Peter Stuckey has kindly granted me permission to use extracts from the book for this article. As an introduction, I cannot better Peter’s own which dedicates the book to: those brave men of the Bristol Channel who, with their stout boats, went seeking “downalong”

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The Pilotage History

In order to better understand the role of the Bristol Channel skiff it is useful to understand the pilotage area that they covered since the pilots also served vessels trading to ports in S Wales as well as Bristol. The picture however is not as clear cut as the name suggests because due to the competition between pilots in those days there are records in the Welsh ports of their own pilots and in a further complication, the Bristol Channel pilots were not based in Bristol at all but at the small village of Pill at the mouth of the river Avon.

The records of pilotage out of Pill go back to 1497 when barge master James Ray was appointed by the Mayor and Corporation of Bristol to pilot John Cabot’s Mathew on its historic voyage to the New World. Pill subsequently became the centre for Bristol Channel pilots but the relationship between Pill and Bristol was not a happy one and this strained relationship could probably fill a book of its own so suffice to note for period covered by this article that the pilots operated under the Bristol Channel Pilotage Act of 1807 from which the following extract defines the pilotage area as;

from a certain Place about Four Miles Eastward of King Road and so down the River Severn and Bristol Channel to the two small islands called the Stipe Holmes and the Flat Holmes … (and their authority shall) be extended to the Appointment of Pilots for the conducting of Ships and Vessels into and out of and upon the whole of the Bristol Channel, and the several Ports, Harbours and Creeks belonging to and issuing from the same … (that is) all Vessels passing up and down and upon the Bristol Channel to and from the Eastward of Lundy Island, and in or upon the several creeks of the said Channels.

The fact that theirs was a tough life can appreciated by the photo of Pill pilots and “Westernmen” taken around 1880!

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Pill Pilots & “Westernmen c 1880

The Sailing Skiffs

There are no historical records of skiffs and their construction prior to the early 19th century but like many craft the evolution would have been gradual over the centuries to met the three main requirements of speed, seaworthiness and ease of handling. The very nature of pilotage in those days where pilots were in direct competition with each other would have meant that any design element which gave a new boat the edge over existing boats would have been incorporated by others and there is no doubt that this constant drive to gain advantage over others is what caused these remarkable vessels to not only become the best sailing craft of their day but also for the design to be still one that is world renowned as one of the best blue water sailing craft in the 21st Century.

The earliest reliable record is from the 1795 Register of Ships which was instigated by the Corporation of Bristol that year and lists 12 Skiffs and provides their tonnage which ranged between 14 and 24 tons but no other details. Other records from the early 19th Century provide more details of some skiffs still surviving from the 1780’s & 90’s and the lengths of the craft ranged between 33 ft (10m) and 40 ft (12.2m). The sail plans weren’t recorded but the skiff James and Samuel which is listed in the 1795 register was sold in 1812 and the equipment included 1 mainsail, 2 foresails, 4 jibs, 1 squaresail, 1 gaff topsail and 1 topmast steering sail.

The earliest photograph of a skiff is that of the Trial which belonged to pilot T Vowles (1847 -78). and shows the squaresail yard which was seemingly a common feature on the early skiffs..

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The Trial : An early skiff

It may be thought that detailed plans would exist for the cutters, especially those built in the late 19th and early 20th century, but such plans are virtually non existent because the construction lines were either taken from existing hulls or from half hull models. Also there was no “standard” model with lengths generally varying between 40ft ( 2.2m) and 50 ft (15.2m). Despite the variation in length the method of construction and timber used was fairly standard and the construction was usually of English oak, English elm and pitch pine with interior fittings of teak. Despite the lack of detailed drawings there is the following specification for the Kindly Light, a cutter built for Barry pilot Lewis Alexander dated1911:

General Dimensions: 52ft overall, 141/2 ft. beam, about 81/2 ft. draught. Length of keel, 38ft. Vessel to be built with round forefoot and elliptic stem. Cabin to be fitted with 2 berths and usual lockers. Forecastle fitted with 2 berths, lockers and racks for sails. Materials to be the best of their respective description and to be fitted in a workmanlike manner.

Keel: To be of English elm. (Generally the elm keels were in one length and about 18 inches deep and 6 inches wide)

Stem & Stem Posts: Of English oak.

Floors, frames, stanchions and beams: Of oak.

Keelson: Of pitch pine.

Planking: 1 oak plank round top, pitch pine to bilge, stout elm bilge 21/2 inch, remainder of plank of elm or pitch pine l1/2inch.

Rails: To be of elm or oak with greenheart capping.

Decks: Best yellow pine.

Fastenings: To be galvanized iron.

Masts: To be cutter-rigged with pole size as required.

Bowsprit, boom, gaff, topsail yard, two oars, boat hook. Booming out spar. Ironwork on Keel: Ballast iron.

Rigging: Three shrouds each side of 2in wire, forestay 31/2 inch wire running tackle.

Sails: One mainsail, one foresail, two topsails, three jibs, one balloon foresail, one spinnaker.

Painting: Vessel to be scraped, cemented and concreted up to bilge, to have two coats oil paint, two coats paint on bottom and top sides. Cabin to be varnished, forecastle to be grained.

Brasses for rudder head and collar for trunk and head of stem post.

Sundries and Utensils: Four plates, four mugs, cooking stove, knives, forks and spoons, saucepans etc. Foghorn, bulb flashlight, Morse lamp, combination lamp, water tank 60 gallons, table in forecastle. A

As an interesting note, I understand that Kindly Light still exists and is currently being fully restored in time for her centenary.

The performance of any sailing vessel is as dependent upon the cut and set of her sails but especially for pilots since their livelihood depended upon getting out to the boarding ground ahead of the competition.

The mainsail was of cotton in summer and flax in winter and they were fitted with four sets of reef points and were loose footed.  An indication of the extreme conditions that these craft had to work in, when set to the fourth set, the gaff jaws were almost down to the boom gooseneck. Later, some cutters were fitted with roller-reefing and so were laced to a wooden jackstay or ‘combe’ along the boom. The disadvantage of this reefing was that as the sail was rolled the leech exerted a load on the boom between the gooseneck and mainsheet and the stronger the wind the greater the stress. However, the risk of a broken boom was more than offset by the ease of handling.

The number of headsails carried depended largely on the affluence of the owner, but in all boats it was usual to have a working foresail, which had two sets of reef-points, a balloon foresail and three jibs, namely the large jib or ‘spinnaker’, working or ‘slave’ jib and storm or ‘spitfire’ jib. One or more topsails were also carried

Pilots didn’t normally tan or ‘cutch’ their sails as it was essential that their number or port initial should stand out clearly, but one Welsh pilot apparently carried a tanned jackyard topsail for reasons of strategy. When cruising amongst the numerous tan-sailed fishing craft, he would set this tanned topsail to disguise himself as one of them, and work out to the westward of a rival cutter, resetting his normal sail when the advantage had been gained. Some pilots made their own sails using skills gained on deep-water sailing ships during their required ‘sea-time’ .

When steamships made their appearance the pilots rapidly exploited the possibility of using the ship to tow the skiff back to port in order for it to be available immediately for the next job! This resulted in the unique structural fitting of heavy towing bits being added to the foredeck of the craft.  Somewhat understandably, the crews apparently hated being towed because with the ship steaming at full speed it was exhausting to keep the skiff under control with the foredeck awash!! Pilot Frank Trott actually fitted a proper tug’s towing hook to the fore side of his cutter MargueriteMarguerite is also still sailing today.

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The cutter Cymro under tow!  photo N Alexander

The Skiffs at Work

The other important aspect of the skiffs was that handling should be manageable by a cox’n and deck hand so the deck fittings, rigging and layout were designed with the same eye for efficiency as the hull and sail plan.

The mainmast was a stout spar wire shrouds but no backstays, and was usually surmounted by a short fidded topmast which was supported by a topmast forestay and a pair of wire shrouds, but often no spreaders and, again, no topmast backstays. The spars were of pine and very heavy in order to eliminate as much supporting rigging as possible, as in the case of the bowsprit which, although sometimes fitted with an adjustable bobstay wasn’t fitted with shrouds in order to facilitate the frequent adjustments necessary to change jibs or reef jib. The bowsprit was normally shipped through a hole in the bulwark to starboard of the stem post.

Just abaft of the aforementioned bitts was the fore-hatch which gave access to the foc’s’le and forepeak and aft of that a little forward of amidships was the mast. Spare spars and sweeps were stowed fore-and-aft in two vertically mounted iron hoops. Aft of the mast a companion hatch was situated at the fore end of the self draining cockpit.  There was usually just one seat athwart-ships at the after end of the cockpit and as additional useful feature, the cutter Pet had a lavatory pan built into one comer of the cockpit seat!

Behind the cockpit coaming was the mainsheet horse and rudder post. The lower mainsheet block was not on a running traveller but was located at the centre of the horse by two very heavy flanking coil springs, or buffers. These buffers were highly necessary as the cutters were frequently gybed all standing as a standard manoeuvre when working and there was seldom time -or hands -to spare for the refinement of overhauling the sheet to ease the load. Generally speaking, the horse was about 2ft to 2ft 6in in length and was mounted between two very strong iron uprights, just high enough to allow clearance for the tiller arm.

The pilot’s boarding punt was kept on the port side, abaft the main rigging, stowed in chocks right way up. This was usually a clinker-built boat about 13ft length  often painted white so as to be easily identified at night.

Skiffs generally had fairly high bulwarks, of about 1ft 6in to 2ft, with a removable section through which the punt was launched to be rowed to and from the ship, Many punts had a standing wire strop fastened between the inside of the stem and transom at the point of balance, and to get the punt back on board the cutter a burton from the masthead was made fast to the eye in the strop, thus making it comparatively easy to hoist it inboard.

There were a few deadlights flush mounted into the deck to provide daylight below and there were rarely any ventilators ( they got enough fresh air!) fitted so the decks were clear  of obstructions for working.

On station the cutters were required to display a pilot flag which in 1849 became the white over red flag still in use today. At night an all round white light was displayed supplemented by a kerosene flare every 15 minutes with each port having a sequence code for displaying the flare. For example the flare code for Bristol was two shorts and a long. After 1858 the cutters were required to display sidelights at night when underway but contemporary accounts indicate that this was frequently ignored, especially in calms when it was not unusual for cutters to extinguish all their lights and get the sweeps out and row the cutter to gain a Westerly advantage over other cutters. Once a ship was encountered that required the services of the pilot, the ship would heave to while the cutter would work into the lee of the ship and “out punt” to transfer the pilot across for boarding. One man and the pilot would do the rowing whilst the man remaining on board would sail clear single handed and once the pilot had shipped return close under the lee of the ship to  recover the punt and other man. The cutter would then either sail or be towed back to the home port ready for the next run out. Occasionally more than one pilot would be on board so the cutter would remain out on station looking for other work. I refer to both the cutter hands as “men” but it was normally the case that these cutter hands were related to the pilots and were pilot apprentices themselves so there was no on board distinction of cox’n and deck hand

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“Out Punt”    Painting by Peter Stuckey

There are some today who question whether the skiffs were actually sailed by two men but  this was definitely the case. Peter Stuckey wrote the book when some of the old sailing pilots were still alive and he undertook interviews which has left us a valuable records of those days. These first hand accounts reveal not just a life of hardship and danger but almost unbelievable accounts of seamanship skills.

The following are extracts from the story of Captain George Buck who served his apprenticeship skiffs in the early 1900’s.

Once we were hove to about 5 miles SW of the Wolf Rock, the wind had died away to a flat calm, the sea like a mirror, very dark without a cloud in the sky and the stars shining in the water the same as in the sky, all the lighthouses showing their lights all around the horizon and the Lizard light flashing in the sky. I was on 12 to 4 watch when a ship’s masthead light came in sight. I took a bearing and saw she would pass a long way to the north of us and, having no wind, the only thing I could do was show the Bristol signal on the flashlight, though as the flashlight was usually used by fishing boats in this area ships generally gave it a wide berth. We were expecting one of Pyman’s ships along, called the Cober, she being five days out from Gibraltar. I decided to call one of the pilots (we had two on board) and when he came on deck I suggested calling the other pilot, launching the punt and pulling as far as possible to get as close as we could, then to show the flashlight and hail her with the megaphone. We pulled until she was abreast of us, still more than a mile away, showed the flashlight and started to hail her, but eventually had to give up and had started to pull back to the skiff when we saw her port light come in sight and she came towards us, and sure enough it was the Cober bound for Bristol. I put the pilot on board and he towed me back to the skiff. The next night we still a flat calm. In the 12 to 4 watch I heard my mate come below and tell the other pilot a ship was in sight a long way to the north. I turned out and suggested another pull, the pilot agreed and this time he took an oar and we made the punt fly through the water, stopping now and again to show the flashlight. We were just deciding to give up when she went hard-a-starboard and steamed towards us. She was bound for Bristol and of course I expected to be towed back to the skiff, but when the pilot suggested this to the captain he told him had lost a blade and a half of his propeller and wanted to make sure of his tide. The pilot looked over the bridge and told me but I did not care, being happy to think we had another ship, and started to row back. After pulling for some time I stopped to see if I could pick up the skiff’s light but with so many stars reflected in the water I could not find it but I could see the Wolf light and knew if I pulled in that direction I was bound to find her. It seemed I had been rowing for hours alone in the world and I started singing to keep myself company. Then I stopped rowing, looked around and saw a light and was close to the skiff. My mate was pleased to see me back and I often wonder how many miles I rowed that night.

….It was very dark as we were approaching Barry entrance when suddenly a blue light (a signal for a pilot), was shown from a large ship at anchor in the roads. We sailed off to her and she was the Everton Grange (twin-screw) bound for Avonmouth. We hailed her, told them to put a ladder over and we would put a pilot on board.

The weather had by now got worse with a strong west wind and confused sea, with the tide ebbing west. The ship was lying across the tide, with the tide running on her lee side at about three knots. This meant we had to keep well to leeward, drop the punt with the pilot and myself, and the man in the skiff would have to get back into the wind, then come back and pick me up. If he lost the wind under her lee the tide would set the skiff down on the ship and do some damage. Everything went along fine. I put the pilot on the ladder and the skiff was coming back to pick me up with sufficient way to take her in to the wind again. I was about to jump aboard with the painter when the pilot hailed us to come back and take the Liverpool pilot in as he wished to catch the first train back to Liverpool in the morning. I rowed back to the ladder and then saw that the skiff had lost the wind and was setting down on the ship and we could do nothing to stop her going alongside. We managed to get a couple of fenders over and she brought up on the ship’s starboard quarter close to the propeller, the tide pinning her there. I made the punt fast to the skiff and asked them to pass us down a rope to heave us clear of the ship’s quarter as every time she rolled she smashed our bulwarks and the propeller was very close. But before we got the rope the propeller started to revolve and we yelled for them to stop it. The engines were stopped right away, they passed us down a rope and as they hove us amidships the pilot looked over the ship’s side and asked what all the shouting was about. I told him we had been close to the propeller and felt sure it had touched our bottom. The pilot, using the ship’s engines, then brought her head to tide and we were able to sail away from her.

I pulled up the floorboards in the steerage to make sure we were not making water as the blades of the propeller had been whizzing round abreast our cockpit. When we found everything was all right we asked if the Liverpool pilot still wanted us to land him. The reply being ‘Yes’, I rowed back to the ladder and took him off. We got alongside the skiff and having hauled the punt on board, set more sail and as we shaped course for Avonmouth I made a pot of tea.The next day the pilot came on board to survey the damage. It was not serious, about six feet of bulwark damaged. We pulled up the floorboards over the pump-well and found she had not made any water. The pilot then asked me why I had been shouting and I told him if he had been on board the skiff with that propeller churning round alongside he also would have done some shouting and I was still of the opinion that the propeller had touched our bottom. About three weeks later we put her on Ilfracombe Strand to scrub and tar her bottom and we found the bottom scored to to a depth of about 1/2 inch over a 3 foot length! It was the only time I was really frightened.

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Pilot skiffs at Pill circa 1910

..We were cruising about 30 miles west of Lundy Island in a strong westerly wind and rough sea, expecting the Dominion liner, Manxman. We knew there were no skiffs to the westward of us and if she came along she would be ours. We had three rolls in the mainsail, reefed foresail and storm jib. About midday the pilot decided to run towards the island as the wind was increasing, as sometimes, when blowing hard, the wind would decrease to leeward, but when we got abreast the north end of Lundy the wind increased, so, putting another roll in the mainsail, we decided to run farther up Channel. About 8 pm we rolled the mainsail down with the jaws of the gaff on the mainboom, double reefed the foresail and hove-to, being now between the Nash and Foreland Point.

We never cared to give up the chance of a ship and we were certain if the Manxman came along she would be ours and, being a large ship and loaded, we should manage to board her. At 10 pm the pilot came on deck and the wind seemed to be increasing, with heavy squalls and confused sea, so he told me to put the helm up and run for Barry Roads. This skiff was the old Glance and she would run in any sea and never take any water over the stern. Just before midnight the pilot came on deck again and told me to make a pot of tea and call my mate. This I did and was on my way to the cockpit with a cup for the pilot when I heard a crash and when I got to the cockpit I found that the mainboom had snapped like a carrot. The mainsheet and the end of the boom were towing in the water and the mainsail was in ribbons. We had a difficult job getting the broken piece of boom on board and were afraid it might hit the side and break a plank} but we finally got everything secured and again running before the wind. I thought we should go to Barry but the pilot said we would go to Pill as we would require a new mainsail and mainboom.

Lowering the foresail and jib, we put a spare foresail fore side of the mast, hoisted it up and were away like a scalded cat. When we reached the river we hoisted the reaching foresail aft side of the mast for a mainsail, set the foresail and arrived at Pill just before high water. While we were mooring, the havenmaster’s office hailed the boatman’s shelter to say that the Manxman was in King Road and had asked for a pilot. We had not only lost a mainsail and mainboom but also a good paying ship. That was just the luck of the draw in the days of competitive piloting

This is just a small selection of accounts from George Buck and others in the book but provides a valuable insight into the life of pilots who earned their livelihood from the skiffs. Although several pilots and boatmen lost their lives in this service their losses were remarkably low considering the conditions they suffered and were probably no more than those of other occupations in those times. The testimony as to the seaworthiness of of the skiffs and the relationship between the men and their craft is summed up by George Buck as follows:

….when boarding ships at night during dirty weather, we were always glad when we had the punt back on board. In the daytime we took little notice of the weather and it had to be very bad when we could not board and it was not very often we had to run for shelter. The skiffs were fine craft and in bad weather would heave-to with the fore sheet to windward and the helm lashed a little down and they would work to windward off a lee shore.

Off Duty

The pilots relationship with their skiffs contnued even when they were off duty and racing “Reviews” were held at each port and were enthusiastically supported by the local community. Occasionally the skiffs raced against professional sailing yachts and frequently beat them especially in windy conditions. When on service, speeds of 10 knots were frequently achieved and this speed was often exceeded during racing when the additional sails were set.

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Off duty racing.

Ilfracombe was the popular holiday resort for the Bristol Channel and the flat firm sands provided a good place for repairs and sprucing up of the skiffs. The pilots andf crew’s families would be lodged ashore in boarding houses and carnivals and other entertainments were enjoyed by all.

The 21st Century

The remarkable sea keeping qualities of the Bristol Channel skiffs and cutters has ensured their survival, with many original craft having been fully restored and maintained. Although during the latter half of the 20th Century the advent of fibre glass cruising and racing yachts somewhat eclipsed these wonderful craft, in recent years there has been a revival of interest and as well as restorations, lines are being taken from original hulls for new builds. In particular they are increasingly popular for the charter market. In ocean races they continue to win trophies when competing against modern yachts and since 2006 an annual pilot cutter “Review” has been held at St Mawes in Cornwall which is seeing an increase in turnout, despite the economic downturn. Meanwhile the reputation of the design for serious “blue water” cruising remains unsurpassed. Such a legacy is a fitting tribute to those hard working pilots and men who earned their living from these legendary craft.

JCB. With thanks to Peter Stuckey for permission to use extracts from his book.


Read the story of Alfred William Venn, one of the last sailing pilots here (page 8 )

52 Responses to “The Bristol Channel Sailing Pilot “Skiffs””



Roberta Hutchings
January 12th, 2019 at 18:19

Mabel Isabel was my grandmother whom I was very fond of and visited frequently as a young girl.
I would appreciate learning of your findings to add to my research,
especially that of the Stenner side of the family.
Roberta aka, Bobbie.

 


Andrew Paisey
January 12th, 2019 at 22:38

Hi Bobbie,

I knew Greta well as she lived in Rudgleigh Avene and we lived in Rudgleigh Road. Robert was very prominent in the St John’s Ambulance so every one knew him. My details of the family mostly stem from the census and FBMD records so I would guess you already have them including Ronald dying at sea aged 27.

As you also know when James Cox Buck’s wife Eliza died in 1898 their children were shared out. My grandfather and his brother James (aka Wiliam) stayed with their grandmother Rachel, George and Mabel’s daughter Mabel were with Auntie Ellen and James Cox Junior went to live with his Uncle William at Shirehampton. James Cox junior died during WW1 in 1916 whilst his brother William was unable to live a normal life after WW1 due to injuries he incurred. I am not sure why Mabel’s daughter Mabel was staying with Ellen in 1901 when her son John was living with Mabel and Robert at Bank Place.

Most of the family tragedies come earlier i.e. five out of five of James Mitchell (pilot) and his wife Sarah Buck’s children who survived childbirth dying between the ages of 24 and 26 of a lingering illness, Charles Henry Buck drowned in 1906 when the SS Reginald sank the pilot cutter Ellen near the Hospital ship and the body of George Buck (b 1853) being washed up in the river in 1865 when he was only 12. Most of these tragedies are long forgotten in the mist of history.

Andrew

 

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