Buy Boats, Sell Boats, Review Boats

Posted by on Oct 6, 2010 in Boat Reviews, Sailboat, Sailboat Racing, UK, US | 1 comment

Pilot Cutters: A Lasting Appeal

These gaff-rigged sailboats worked the English Channel and beyond in the early 20th century; their all-weather speed keeps them popular today.

What kind of sailing vessel is fast, weatherly, tough, easy to work shorthanded, shapely and heavy enough to punch through steep chop without chipping the crew’s teeth, and capable of duties ranging from fishing to cargo-hauling to lightering and delivering pilots to ships offshore? There may be more than one answer, but it would be hard to think of a more fitting boat than the small, gaff-rigged cutter that ranged the English Channel and beyond from about the turn of the last century until World War Two.

joliebrise3

Jolie Brise, built in 1913 and still going strong. Photo courtesy of Dauntsey’s School/Jolie Brise

There were plenty of variations among their ilk, and they went (and still go) by various designs and designations – Bristol Channel Cutters, pilot cutters, Le Havre pilot boats, protection cutters — but in general they share design characteristics that made them ideal for the variety of trades described above: They were on the small side for trade boats, somewhere around 50 feet long on deck, and had plumb or spoon bows with long bowsprits for carrying different headsail combinations. They were relatively heavy in displacement and had fine entries, full keels, carefully turned bilges with sweet runs, and usually pronounced counters overhanging the water aft of the rudder.

Speed was always of the essence, because during their heyday most of these boats were run independently by their owners, and would have to race to whatever job was at hand. They were able to go out in the roughest weather and claw to windward against a head sea at good speed, and the boat that got there first got the job.

The lines of a typical Bristol Channel Cutter. These were plans for The Solway, which was renamed Carlotta. Carlotta was probably built after a model, not these exact lines. According to her restorers she has more keel rocker, a different rudder-post angle, and a mast stepped farther aft. Plans courtesy of Carlotta’s restorers at www.pilotcutter.ca

The lines of a typical Bristol Channel Cutter. These were plans for The Solway, which was renamed Carlotta. Carlotta was probably built after a model, not these exact lines. According to her restorers she has more keel rocker, a different rudder-post angle, and a mast stepped farther aft. Plans courtesy of Carlotta’s restorers (www.pilotcutter.ca)

Probably the most famous of the breed was the Le Havre pilot boat Jolie Brise, designed by Alexandre Paris and built by Albert Paumelle’s yard in 1913. She was 48 feet on deck, 56 overall, with a beam of almost 16 feet and a draft of 10 (count ‘em) 10 feet. John Leather, in The Gaff Rig Handbook, said that Jolie Brise commonly sailed at 8 knots and could make 9-10 knots “without appreciable wake.” After a short career in the commercial world, she became a legendary racing yacht, winning, among other laurels, the first Fastnet Race in 1925, and again in 1930. She did well in several Newport-Bermuda Races, but her most famous exploit in that race was the rescue of all but one of the crew of Adriana in 1932, when the schooner caught fire and was lost during the race. She went into retirement for a few decades, then came back out and took overall wins in the Tall Ships Transatlantic Race in 2000 and 2002.

That’s a slippery boat. And that’s the point: Lighter may be faster, usually and generically, but there are heavyweight designs that are capable of speed, comfort, and security combined. They are somewhat rare, and they are expensive. But don’t count them out. This is why there’s been a constant following for these iconic Channel cutters, and always a ready market for them. Today, according to the website of the Bristol Channel cutter Carlotta, there are only 17 original Bristol Channel Cutters left. This doesn’t count others like the Le Havre-launched Jolie Brise. She’s currently owned by Dauntsey’s School in England, and is in fine shape – Bristol condition, in fact – being sailed as a training ship and charter vessel. Her racing pedigree is also being maintained.

Carlotta, one of the last original Bristol Channel Cutters. Photo courtesy of Carlotta’s restorers at www.pilotcutter.ca

Carlotta, one of the last original Bristol Channel Cutters. Photo courtesy of Carlotta’s restorers (www.pilotcutter.ca)

The success of the old channel thoroughbreds inspired the development of modern one-off and production cutters, with many of the most popular designs coming from the drafting table of Lyle Hess, who died in 2002 at age 90. More than any other designer, Hess carried the spirit of the channel boats forward, and the movement has been expanded by the long, successful, and well-publicized sailing careers of Lin and Larry Pardey aboard their Hess-designed 24-foot Serrafyn and their 30-foot Taleisin. Just as the Pardeys became known for voyaging in the engineless Serrafyn in the mid-1970s, the Hess-designed and unabashedly named Bristol Channel Cutter 28, a cutter rig with a boomkin and outboard-hung rudder, also took off in popularity, detailed in “Hess’s Bristol Channel Cutter” on Boats.com. (Hess’s final design, the Falmouth Cutter 34, was in many ways simply an expanded model.) Scores of the 28s have been built since those days, mostly by the Sam L. Morse company of Costa Mesa, California. The testimonials page on the Morse website, and the devotion to Bristol Channel Cutter 28s shown by East Coast brokers Rogue Wave Yacht Sales are evidence that this type of boat keeps stirring something deep in the hearts of sailors, and for good reason.

Read more about the Bristol Channel Cutter

Doug Logan

Connect with Doug on Google+

1 Comment

  1. That’s the most accurate piece on Jolie Brise that I have seem written and I’ve been the skipper for the last 16 Years!
    Toby Marris
    Head of Sailing
    Dauntsey’s School

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Falmouth Cutter 34 | features.boats.com - [...] BLOG Pilot Cutters: A Lasting Appeal October 6th 2010 These small, gaff-rigged sailboats worked the English …
  2. Hess’s Bristol Channel Cutter | features.boats.com - [...] BLOG Pilot Cutters: A Lasting Appeal October 6th 2010 These small, gaff-rigged sailboats worked the English …