Hirta is one of the last of a great breed of boats, one of the last of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters. She has a single mainmast, made of pitch pine and shaped by the adze and planes of the original boatbuilders in Cornwall. To the modern yachtsman, the mast can appear very thin with a width of only eight and a half inches, but has stood Hirta well for nearly a century. She carries a mainsail, staysail, topsail and jib, which is hoisted from the end of her bowsprit. Like all pilot cutters she is built for speed, but this is tempered with great seaworthiness as she would have had to face some of the worst weather and conditions known in British waters as she worked the Bristol Channel at the start of her life.
She is seen by many as one of the best boats of her kind, and her story is one of the most accomplished and tragic in Classic Boat folklore, as well as her most famous voyage being the subject of a bestselling book. With her yawl rig and proud, red, flax canvas sails, she has sailed many countless thousands of miles on the Atlantic and in European waters, and now awaits her next adventure, a thorough refit and rennovation.
She was built in Cornwall by the Slade Yard at Fowey in 1911 at the order of the Barry pilot George Morrice, and named Cornubia,the latinised name for Cornwall. She cost £350 at the time, but recouped £70 of this on her maiden voyage when she picked up a ship off Land's End. She worked as a pilot cutter until 1920, until she was sold into yachting. By this time the pilot cutters were being replaced by steam cutters, but their hardy and streamlined design made them ideal as private yachts. It is not clear at what point her name changed, but she became known as Hirta over the next 38 years, a name which means 'rough, hairy' in Latin.
Hirta now went through a series of different owners. Firstly a civil engineer who looked after her until 1930, then a lawyer who fitted an engine to her in 1931. However, rather than cutting through the rudder and placing the engine in line with the stem of the boat, it was offset onto the port side. This was because Hirta is essentially a sailing boat, and to cut a hole through her stern post and then chop into her rudder would seriously inhibit her sailing ability. Having the engine on one side means that she will turn well and easily in one direction, but will not turn at all in the other. The challenge is to never get into a position where you have to turn in the direction you cannot go!
She was owned by several different people including a peer of the realm and an earl, as well as being used as a sailing school by the Sea Cadets in the Firth of Clyde, until 1958. Then she was bought by Adam Bergius who had seen her during his time as a submariner during the war, but had been unable to buy her. He and his partner Ian Denholm refitted her over the next 23 years and many happy voyages were had in her, including races and cruises around the Scottish lochs and islands.
Adam's son Pol remembers being put to bed in the port drawer of the forecabin, while his brother slept in the starboard one, when still a little baby.
"It meant we were low down and safely shut in, so we could not roll around too much... I remember the infinite feeling of security and the great swishing sound of the sea a few inches away."
Pol's mother had wanted a a family boat, with decks wide enough for the children to ride their tricycles on. With her wide, flush decks, Hirta was a perfect playground. She also had a rather unfortunate defect in that her forward loo door, (or heads door in nautical terminology) would stick whilst on the port tack. During one race, a lady guest spent a rather unpleasant time trapped inside, having to wait until the boat rounded a racing marker and changed onto the starboard tack so that she could be freed!
The most famous point of her career came in 1982 when she was bought by Tom and Ros Cunliffe, who took her to the Medina on the Isle of Wight and fitted her out for ocean sailing. It was their dream to follow in the steps of Viking sailors who had made the crossing of the Atlantic to Americaa millenium earlier, and they felt that a pilot cutter, with their combination of 'seaworthiness, comfort, reasonable speed, affordability and that indefineable but vital extra, beauty' was the ideal boat. Luckily, Hirta had come up for sale at exactly the right moment, and so it was she who became the star of Tom Cunliffe's book Topsail and Battleaxe. There is not space to tell of all her adventures here, I strongly recommend that you go either to the library or to Amazon and get your hands on it now!
In 1983, whilst acting as the committee boat for the Mayor's Cup schooner race near New York, Hirta was hit by Vendredi Treize, a huge monohull. For the next 18 months she languished, impounded, in the dock, while various battles were fought over the insurance to replace her smashed stem. Tom and Ros eventually smuggled aboard anchor chain and sails and slipped away while the boatyard were at lunch, with Tom waving his red ensign and yelling "Remember Nelson!". They left behind them their burnt car and the heads of several of their daughters dolls, ripped off as a warning to them by those they were in wrangles with. Luckily the insurance matter was settled in Hirta's favour and she escaped to the Carribbean and had many more adventures with Tom and his family.
In 1997, Tom and Ros made the difficult decision to part with Hirta. They wished to return to America and ride motorcycles across the continent, but to do so in Hirta would mean abandoning her over the summer in conditions that would sound the death knell for her wooden structure for certain. Leaving her in Britain was the only alternative, and so "feeling like traitors to an old trusted friend", they did just that.
It is now that Hirta's life takes a tragic turn. She was surveyed, as is the custom with old wooden boats, before being sold on. The surveyor gave her a clean bill of health and said she'd last a few more years before needing a refit. Unfortunately she was surveyed again once having been purchased, and the second surveyor took one look at her and said 'She's as rotten as a very rotten thing' - or words to that effect. A feisty legal battle then ensued between the owner and the first surveyor, while poor Hirta languished once again. Without proper care and attention she fell into complete disrepair, with every day of neglect adding £££'s to getting her back in the water again. Finally she was sold to a boatbuilder for a modest sum, now almost a complete wreck. All he is waiting for is an investor with a quarter of a million pounds, who will get his labour and one of the most beautiful ships of the last hundred years to invest their time in.
Hirta's future is uncertain, but she can be found at Gloucester Docks loking very sorry for herself. She is one of the seventeen remaining Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters, and it would be a tragedy if her long and distinguished career were to end due to financial wranglings. If you know of any rich saviours with a passion for wooden boats, then please point them in the direction of Gloucester!
Hirta's Vital Statistics
LOA - 50ft 10in
LWL - 45ft
Beam - 13ft 8in
Draught - 7ft 10in
Classic Boat Issue 136
Topsail & Battleaxe - Tom Cunliffe, ISBN 0715391232
The brains of Peter and Adrian Wynn, for whom Hirta stands as one of the best boats of the last century.