Liverpool Retirements: Letter from Barrie Youde

No 4 William M Clarke Inspection Day

S.S. William M Clarke: Cutter No4 on inspection day. c. 1937

Photo: Liverpool Pilots’ Archives

John Curry’s article on the retirement of Stuart Wood, Geoff Rafferty and John himself marks both a vintage year at Liverpool and nothing less than the end of an era in pilotage, quite possibly throughout the entire world.

Their retirement is the retirement of the last three pilots trained to the highest possible standards in a system of sea-keeping, station-keeping pilot-cutters without any assistance from shore-based launches.

Having left school aged sixteen in 1960 as John explains, he, Stuart and Geoff then served as cadets for about one year deep-sea before joining in 1961 a training-system which was then at its zenith (as it had been since its introduction in 1896) and which began a long process of decline in the following year, 1962. The key to the system was the maintenance of four pilot-cutters, three of which were permanently at sea, with one in dock on stand-by. The three at sea operated in a rotation comprised of one week keeping station at the Mersey Bar (16 miles out of Liverpool), one week keeping station off Point Lynas, Anglesey (a further 36 miles to the west) and one week on tender-duty, sailing daily from Liverpool Landing Stage to the two sea-stations in order to keep the stations properly supplied with pilots. The week on tender-duty (or on-the-run, as it was known colloquially) was served during the middle-week of the three-week rotation, the first and third weeks being served at the Bar and Point Lynas respectively.

The system originated in 1896 when the first four steam-driven pilot-cutters were introduced, replacing a fleet of twelve schooners. As the schooners had been manned on deck entirely by apprentices, the replaced apprentices became the deck-crew of each newly-commissioned steamer, regulated at ten apprentices per pilot-cutter. The system was maintained for the next sixty-six years, largely unchanged through two World Wars, although a fifth steamer was commissioned temporarily between 1915 and 1923. The original four steamers were themselves replaced over the years. By 1961 (when our heroes joined the system and found it ats peak) the fleet comprised one steamer dating from 1937 (a veteran of the Spithead Review of that year) and three diesel-electric pilot-cutters built in 1950, 1953 and 1958. All the cutters were built to the highest specifications, the last three having state-of-the-art gravity davits for the boat-work which formed the essential element of their existence. The cutters were commanded by licensed pilots as Senior Master and Second Master on permanent appointment. The Senior Apprentice (aged about 23) was Mate or Chief Officer of the cutter.

In 1962 the ss William M Clarke, Number 4 Cutter dating from 1937, was sold to the Humber and was replaced by two shore-based launches for tender-duty to the Bar station. The service of the Lynas station was maintained by overland transport. There was no longer a sea-keeping cutter on tender-duty.The oldest diesel-electric cutter (Sir Thomas Brocklebank of 1950) was withdrawn in 1974 upon the development of the modern shore-based station at Point Lynas and the later two (Edmund Gardner, Number 2 of 1953 and Arnet Robinson, Number 3 of 1958) survived in service until 1982 – when the Edmund Gardner became the prime exhibit at Merseyside Marime Museum.

John Curry, Stuart Wood and Geoff Rafferty quite possibly have honour of being the last three pilots anywhere in the world to have trained in such a system and to have served as licensed pilots in a major port while still in their early twenties. There remain of course several pilots in service today who experienced the training-system in its twenty-year decline after 1962,  but no others who had the benefit of the training-system at its peak. As a practical method of training pilots for a major port, it had no equal.


The last of the Four-Boat men.

The last of the men on the Run.

The red and white Flag, the pea-whistle and bag,

All cruising in Westering sun.

Who cruised through the Winter as well,

Through fog and through storm and through ice,

Who cursed and who swore bloody-hell,

Who served and who didn’t think twice.

For such was their chosen vocation.

Apprenticed in sea, ships and ropes.

In Pilotage. Keeping the Station,

In youth, aspiration and hopes:

For trade and for commerce and living,

For family matters and life.

Accepting the crude unforgiving,

To satisfy Nature and wife.

Each man bore the yoke: or he lost it.

In Pilotage, that is the way.

Professional practice would cost it,

No less than it costs it today.

Salute the Four-Boat men of Mersey,

Serving Liverpool all through her prime:

Apprenticed, in Flag-embossed jersey,

Then Licensed in service sublime.

In passing the yoke now to others,

Old men salute youngsters and then,

Acknowledging  youngsters as brothers,

Salute all the old Four-Boat men.

Barrie Youde

5 Responses to “Liverpool Retirements: Letter from Barrie Youde”

August 30th, 2011 at 23:58

Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site accidentally, and I am shocked why this accident didn’t came about in advance! I bookmarked it.

January 3rd, 2015 at 10:58

I served on No 2 Edmund Gardner 1959-60 as catering boy… Bert Hydale Chief steward… And Bobby Roberts Chef…….And was onboard the night the Tugboat Applegarth was sank on the Mersey by Clan boat.Would appreciate any information or memories from crews…… Regards


Thomas Horrocks
February 7th, 2017 at 10:19

I served on No 3 Arnet Robinson 1961-1963 as pantry boy and galley boy,
Colin Chief steward (can’t recall surname) Stan Hope ships cook.
Also served for a few weeks on No 2 Edmund Gardner with Bert Hydale Steward and Bob Roberts cook, these people were all ex Merchant navy and gave us hours of entertainment telling us young lads of their deep sea experiences. Our skipper on No 3 was Captain Crane, some of the crew members I recall were Yosser, Twiggy, John curry, Mr Curry used to communicate with his dad and brother who were also Pilots using semaphore (arms only) as we encountered another Pilot boat in passing
or tranfering other pilots from ship to ship. John kindly passed on these skills to us galley boys giving us basic signals like RU OK YES etc.. had the honour of being on board when the Queen opened the new dock gates on the Langton dock. kind regards to all,

Tom Horrocks


wilf macdonald
August 24th, 2018 at 12:29

I served on the william m clarke 1957/58,captain tarrant and captain williams if I remember correctly, cook tom fox.

September 29th, 2018 at 21:45

I wasent galley boy on sir thomas 1968 to 70 they were 2 of the best years of my life Harry the cook..Burt and Mr Jackson who looked after the stores ..the crew were the best loved it and will treasure all the memories …ended up on the shell supertanker thanks to harry


Leave a Reply

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