The pilot cutter is a term used to describe the working boats of harbour authority pilots who used to guide merchant and trading vessels into ports around the coast of Britain and Europe.
The pilot cutters were designed to be competative, the fastest cutters getting the best ships and best fares as they came into harbour, but they also had to be extremely seaworthy in order to cope with the harsh winter weather and choppy seas. Pilot cutters had a fixed waterline, unlike fishing boats or barges, whose waterline would change depending on the weight of cargo being carried. Pilot cutters only carried human cargo, or very light loads such as mail, and could, therefore, be specially designed around this set waterline mark. As a result, the design is one of the purest in working boat forms - to be fast and weatherly.
Pilot cutters were designed to be between fourty and sixty feet in length, with a long keel and deep draught as well as having flush decks (no upstanding cabins or wheelhouses), low bulwarks, a bowsprit, (often retractable) and a single pole mast. They would carry a mainsail, staysail, topsail and jib, plus a spinnaker for running downwind, and all spars were designed to be extremely heavy in an attempt to rid the boat of as much supporting rigging, such as shrouds and stays as possible. They were meant to be sailed by two people, or singlehanded if pressed, and carried a small boarding punt on the port side, by which means the pilot would board any incoming vessels, without needing to bring his cutter too close.
The boarding punts were clinker built from wood, and painted white as an aid to sighting and finding it at night. In the Bristol Channel, the punt was the only way to tell apart the Bristol and Welsh cutters. The Welsh had low bulwarks over which the punt was lifted and then sculled away from, whereas the Bristol ships had a removeable section of bulwark through which the punt could be launched and then rowed. Once launched and the pilot made fast aboard the incoming vessel, the pilot cutter would often pick up a tow from the ship. This meant that the pilot would be reunited with his cutter once they were in harbour without any need for a rendezvous point, but also meant an exhausting time for the the poor crew, who had to keep the boat under control at high speed. It also meant that cutters were fitted with immense bitt-heads, vast timbers that took the strains and stresses of the tow rope, as these forces would have torn other ships in two.
Inside the cutters there was little room for luxury. Ventilation was not seen as a priority for men who spent most of their time being blasted by the sea air on deck. A toilet or head was also often lacking, as the ships rail was considered perfectly adequate. Cutters were fitted with a saloon amidships, with a table in the centre and settees on either side. The upper sides of the saloon were characterised by long eliptical cupboards with sliding doors which served as berths, and which could be closed in rough weather to avoid injury. Two further berths could be found inside the forecastle. Also within the forecastle was the chain locker, cooking range, sail racks and food store. Weight distribution was seen as paramount to the performance of the boats, and all cutters were sailed with light ends - nothing was allowed beyond the bitt timbers forrard, or aft of the quarters at the back.
By the early 20th century, pilot cutters were being replaced by steam ships, and their use as working vessels came to an end. However, their design made them extremely popular and many were converted into yachts, a profile which was confirmed when French built cutter Jolie Brise won the very first Fastnet race in 1925, then twice more in 1929 and 1930, going on to win the transatlantic Tall Ships Race in 2000. They were also made popular through the exploits of Major Bill Tillman, who took a trio of Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters all over the world and wrote many books of his adventures, which were eagerly devoured by yachtsmen and mountaineers alike. One of the most famous voyages made by a pilot cutter is that of the Hirta who was sailed in the footsteps of the Vikings from the UK to the USA in 1982.
Today, the design of the pilot cutter is a common blueprint for wooden replicas, such as Chloe May, now a common sight in many races. It was the most advanced form of boat design 100 years ago, and very little has changed to better it in the present.
The Sailing Cutters of the Bristol Channel - Peter J Stuckey ISBN 190017832X
Classic Boat Issues 115, 116, and 136
Shro0m would also like to point out that a pilot cutter is the guy at FOX that decides what shows will air in the fall ;-)