Book Review: Pilot Cutters under Sail: Pilots & Pilotage in Britain and Northern Europe by Tom Cunliffe


At the turn of the millennium, the French specialist maritime heritage publisher, Chasse Maree, planned a major series of three books on sailing pilot cutters, simply titled “Pilots” and the first two were published in 2002 & 2003. Covering North America, India and NW Europe these magnificent, lavishly illustrated volumes, in addition to providing a detailed explanation of the evolution of pilot craft with respect to the district served, also provided a valuable insight into trading patterns and how pilotage services evolved around those trades. With respect to the pilot vessels serving ports around the British Isles the books comprehensively covered the coast of England from the East and North East coast, Scotland and the North West, including Liverpool. Unfortunately, the third volume, which was to include the South coast and the famous Bristol Channel sailing cutters, never materialised, thus leaving the record frustratingly incomplete!

The principle author for the Chasse Maree series was the well known sailor and maritime journalist Tom Cunliffe (who owned a sailing pilot cutter for many years), and he has now completed the trilogy himself with the publication of Pilot Cutters Under Sail which, although a different format to the Chasse Maree volumes, is no less lavish in its detailed content.

The introduction to the book provides a very interesting précis of the evolution of not just the pilot craft but also of the service itself. Pilot vessels were never a result of commissions to naval architects but evolved as a result of the harsh economic realities of competition between pilots that meant that those pilots who could find and board a vessel first earned more money! Consequently over the years the sailing pilot cutters, especially those that sailed out into the Western approaches, became renowned as being some of the fastest and most seaworthy craft afloat. Another important factor was that although those craft needed to be able to carry a large amount of sail for calm conditions they also had to be capable of being sailed by a crew of two (sometimes only one!) in the worst conditions likely to be encountered. The designs therefore evolved during the 19th century through to the early 20th century when they were gradually replaced by more efficient steam driven cutters. However, the design had not gone unnoticed by leisure sailors and therefore these remarkable craft, far from being rendered obsolete and left to rot like so many sailing craft at the time, found a new lease of life as yachts. A testament to the design is the fact that over a century later not only are some of the original Bristol Channel sailing cutters still sailing but they are still considered amongst the finest of designs for blue water leisure cruising, and many new vessels are being commissioned using the traditional designs. This aspect is covered by a full chapter in the book, along with a chapter on the techniques as to how the vessels were sailed.

So, although this book only covers the English Channel, Thames Estuary and Southern North Sea, it concludes a very well researched account of the world of pilotage in the days of sail and will be of interest to all pilots.

John Clandillon-Baker

Published by: Seaforth Publishing

ISBN 978-1-84832-150-0

RRP: £30.00


Leave a Reply

UK Maritime Pilots' Association
European Maritime Pilots' Association
Internation Pilots' Association SITE SPONSORS
Navicom Dynamics
OMC International