The revival of pilot cutter design

When the age of discovery developed into the modern age of commerce, with the shipping fleets of the French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British empires ensuring a global trade of exotic spices, the demands of an industrialised 19th century Europe required increasing tonnage, and the ships grew significantly in size, sail area, and in consequence, draught. With the largest trading ports inside the English Channel, scattered with rocks and extreme currents, or inside the shallow sounds, harbours and bays on the East coast of a fledgling American nation, fast pilot boats were developed specifically for guiding the increasingly large clippers to land and to port, and the advent of insurance companies made sure this became a generalised obligation. East and west, local experts on rocks and currents, these pilots could not be bypassed, and they advocated a "fiercely independent profession", in Tom Cunliffe's own words. They earned a commission for each commercial ship that they took to port - the larger the ship, the larger the reward. As a result, competition - to get to the larger vessels first - was indeed fierce.

The English channel pilot boat developed to be a truly wholesome type: seaworthy (able to safely withstand the roughest sea and wind conditions), and fast in light conditions, including to weather. The earliest French pilot boat for which we have lines, the Henriette Marie, was built circa 1847 and served as pilot boat to the city of Le Havre until 1870. She carried a fore-and-aft gaff rig with a square lug topsail (In the day's nomenclature, she would have been called a cutter because, like revenue cutters, her mast would have been placed amidships, enabling her to carry multiple headsails - in this case a staysail on the bow and a jib at the end of a long bowsprit). She was recorded with the figure H2 annotated on her mainsail, although it is not clear if she featured this throughout her career and she may have already featured the distinctive anchor sign and red stripe that identified her as a pilot boat. Lt. Armand Pâris, a shipwright and son of the admiral, took her measurements in 1866 and drew the lines below for his father's 1882 book. A seakindly boat, she represents the epitome of the fast boat of the time, with the cod's head (fat stem) and mackerel tail (lean stern), with the beam well forward at 2/5 from the stem.
body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the Henriette Marie (draft Lt. Armand Pâris - collection Claudie Reinhart)
Henriette Marie H2
year of launch: 1847
place of launch: Cherbourg (FR)
Length Over All: 13.65m
Length between Perpendiculars: 12.40m
beam: 4.14m
draught: 2.42m
displacement: 26.6 tons.

During the build of Henriette Marie, the production of the first iron yacht was started at the Thames Iron Shipbuilding Company in Blackwall. Her designer, Thomas Waterman, had already produced commercial vessels, both steam and sail. To produce the racing cutter, he drew significantly on the published works of John Scott Russell, especially the waveline theory, so when the Mosquito was christened and launched in 1848, she became an immediate threat to larger yachts. Although she did not take part in the 1851 RYS £100 Cup, the Mosquito won the 1852 Queen's Cup and in that year beat the larger 178-ton America in another race 'round the Isle of Wight. The Mosquito's "easy and hollow bow, large displacement, well-raked post and deep keel" (in George Lennox Watson's own words) were proven right by her long and successful racing career; Watson followed: "If the Mosquito had been the product of a foreign yard, she would have created a greater sensation than the schooner America, for she exhibited quite as much ingenuity in her design". It is therefore unfortunate that she did not immediately or substantially influence cutter design, although it is important to note that 40 years after her launch, she became one of the very first yachts to be converted to pilotage. She served at Barrow-in-Furness and closely resembled other pilot cutters of that period.
body plan and half-breadth plan of the Mosquito (Badminton Library, volume 22, 1894)

the rig of the racing cutter Mosquito (print from Montague John Guest's memoirs of the Royal Yacht Squadron, 1902)
Mosquito
year of launch: 1848
builder: Thames Iron Shipbuilding Company (Blackwall, UK)
designer: Thomas Waterman
Length Over All: 21.44m
displacement: 49 tons
rig: fore-and-aft gaff cutter rig with square lug topsail and two headsails

In 1871, after Henriette Marie's service had ended, the shipyard headed by Jacques-Augustin Normand, France's leading naval architect at the time, produced the pilot boat Cours-Après. A larger vessel probably built for a wealthy pilot, she presented the same shape, albeit with a slightly taller plumb bow, a deeper keel aspect ratio, and a premonitory raking sternpost. The beam had been drawn back to the midship section, like the yacht Mosquito, enabling the boat to present a finer cutwater entry. With a lengthier waterline in keeping the same beam as the 1847 Henriette Marie, she was a narrower and more heavily ballasted boat. This would have resulted in a stiffer boat, capable of easier handling and better performance in rough upwind conditions. A versatile split sail plan would have been mounted on a gaff rig and three headsails mounted on a stocky bowsprit, not present on the lines plan.
body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the Cours-Après (draft Le Normand - collection Claudie Reinhart)
Cours-Après H1
year of launch: 1871
modeler/builder: Jacques-Augustin Normand, Chantiers et Ateliers Le Normand (Le Havre, France)
Length Over All: 15.60m
Length between Perpendiculars: 13.80m
beam: 4.22m
draught: 2.75m
displacement: 41.6 tons.

The French pilot boats were increasingly performance-orientated thereafter, especially as the Société des Régates du Havre started organising races in 1891 which were open to these boats. Abel Le Marchand, an established pilot boat builder, produced a lighter, narrower and shallower vessel with more cutaway forefoot and finer entry for his 1890 design Marie Madeleine. A surviving 1894 sistership, the Marie-Fernand, is a fine example of these working vessels which started to mix with yachting.
body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the Marie-Madeleine (collection Claudie Reinhart)
Marie-Madeleine H25
year of launch: 1890
modeler/builder: Abel le Marchand (Le Havre, France)
Length Over All: 15.75m
Length between Perpendiculars: 13.85m
beam: 4.10m
draught: 2.50m
displacement: 33.4 tons.

With the first French yacht club (Société des Régates du Havre) established in 1838, a mere decade before our first pilot boat, it is surprising that yachtsmen & pilots did not interact to develop a common fast coastal boat together: That is due to the early races being held predominantly on the Seine rather than the coast itself, so the actual type requirement would have differed significantly. When the Bassin d'Arcachon -designed and -built cruising yawl Trident II (1892 design by Joseph Guédon, built by Bonnin & Damon) arrived in Le Havre in 1900 to be converted into a pilot boat, new interaction possibilities were made obvious, and marked one of the earliest type conversions in this country. The boat, rechristened Fellow, served a year under her yawl rig until she had earned enough to be converted to a cutter rig. Her mizzen removed, the final step in her conversion was completed. She suffered a tragic sinking during a storm in 1903 while on a Search & Rescue mission. The Trident II had attracted the attention of British yachtsmen before her pilotboat conversion, and it is easy to see why: Guédon had achieved lines that resembled the pilot cutter, yet were far easier, producing a more slender vessel, with a pronounced yet gentle sheer, a long counter and a very raked sternpost and fully submerged rudder: this feature was originally exploited as a loophole in previous rating rules for racing yachts and would have made her very responsive without compromising speed, as well as improving her handicap. The very hollow hull and exterior ballast would have compensated for the fairly shallow draft, a much desired feature on the yacht's original cruising grounds.
sailplan, body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan of the Trident II as published in Die Yacht (collection Jacques Taglang)
Fellow H21 (formerly Trident II)
year of launch: 1892
designer: Joseph Guédon
builder: Bonnin & Damon (Lormont, France)
Length Over All: 18.30m
Length Water Line: 15.30m
beam: 4.80m
draught: 2.60m
displacement: 38 tons (including 17 tons ballast, amongst which 6 tons placed outside the keel)
sail plan: gaff yawl, 241m²
mainsail: 100m²
staysail: 27m²
jib: 32m²
jib topsail: 29m²
topsail: 33m²
mizzen: 20m²

The 1903 pilot boat La Charité was a wider, deeper, and longer boat overall with even less forefoot, a particularly raked sternpost with a long counter. Her sailing performance was probably satisfactory as she was bought by a yachtsman in 1911 and renamed Lucy.
body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the La Charité (collection Claudie Reinhart)
La Charité H31
year of launch: 1903
modeler/builder: Albert Paumelle (Le Havre, France)
Length Over All: 16.55m
Length between Perpendiculars: 13.93m
beam: 4.50m
draught: 2.85m
displacement: 42.8 tons.

The 1905 Liberté, one of the largest, finest and fastest French vessels presented here. On one particular occasion, after her pilot had boarded an incoming French cargo, the Caravellas, she headed back to Le Havre and arrived before the steamer.
body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the Liberté (collection Claudie Reinhart)
Liberté H35
year of launch: 1905
modeler/builder: Abel Le Marchand (Le Havre, France)
Length Over All: 17.30m
Length between Perpendiculars: 14.80m
beam: 4.80m
draught: 2.94m
displacement: 47 tons.

The 28.19-ton pilot boat Louise, built in 1907 by Brûment & Capron, in Fécamp, just north of Le Havre (moulded lines)


The early 1910s marked the climax for the pilot boat type, when small vessels still used the power of sail, whereas the shipping lines of the day had all but abandoned the extreme clipper type of the likes of the Lightning, Thermopylae or the Cutty Sark (destined to ship specific goods over considerable distances at speed), in favour of more versatile cargo steamers of larger overall tonnage, well suited for comfortable passage and therefore accommodated for passengers and diversified cargo in large quantities; Their well-established propulsion systems and quadruple expansion engines providing guaranteed passage times. By the 1910s, rivers had been dredged but not channels, and hydrographic soundings plottings did not use a schematic, and with the number of commercials ships at an all time high, boarding a pilot at the entrance of a channel was of utmost importance.

The historical climax in the count of pilot boat numbers can be tracked to this period. Tom Cunliffe's former pilot cutter Hirta dates from 1911. His personal understanding of the type led him to consider that it was Barry pilot Lewis Alexander's Kindly Light, commissioned for a staggering £500 in 1911, which was the World's fastest pilot cutter. Two years later, the Jolie Brise was launched at Albert Paumelle's yard in Le Havre. She earned her fame by winning the Royal Ocean Racing Club's inaugural Fastnet Race in 1925. With a back-to-back win in 1929 and 1930, the Jolie Brise is the only boat to have won the race three times. The pilot cutter is now represented as a very canvassed vessel with deep draught, very hollowed sections, with a huge sheer from the transom to the bow and a very raked sternpost. Safe, she featured bulwarks along the entire length, acting significantly on the sheer at the bow to keep the deck safe and dry; The bulwarks feature a signature distinction with the openwork scupperholes on the transom that can be recognised on most channel pilot cutters of that period.
launch of the Jolie Brise (collection Jacques Taglang)

the Jolie Brise turning the Fastnet rock (oil on canvas courtesy © Timothy Franklin Ross Thompson)

body plan, sheer plan and half-breadth plan (with diagonals) of the Jolie Brise (collection Jacques Taglang)
Jolie Brise H6
year of launch: 1913
naval architect: Alexandre Pâris
builder: Albert Paumelle (Le Havre, France)
Length Over All: 22.50m
Length On Deck: 17.06m
Length Water Line: 14.63m
beam: 4.63m
draught: 3.10m
displacement: 23 tons
sail plan: gaff cutter, 228m²

Shipping resumed after the Great War and the pilots never stopped work, but they would be replaced little by little by the radio and the boat type neither evolved nor did their numbers increase, instead, significant changes were made to propulsion of increasingly small vessels, and during this period marine diesel engines were fitted with great success and put an end to the working boat's glorious "Age of Sail".

Tom Cunliffe on Bristol Channel pilot cutters, courtesy © British Broadcasting Corporation


After he had successfully conducted full restorations on all three surviving J boats, naval architect Gerard Dijkstra received in 1999 a commission to draw a modernised pilot cutter. The topsides of the vessel, christened Christoffel's Lighthouse, are textbook pilot cutter: Vertical bow, fine entry, a clean working flush deck, and bulwarks all the way forward and aft giving a high freeboard, a sweeping sheer and "openwork" transom scupperholes. While that may please the appearance, Christoffel's Lighthouse's underbody and rig is modern and very different from the wooden pilot cutters. She features a canoe hull with very small quickwork's prismatic coefficient, a deep balanced rudderblade and a high aspect dropkeel with bulb. Being built in aluminium, she enabled Mr. Dijkstra to further develop the original pilot boat type: The dropkeel provides the righting movement, stiffness and ability to point in which the original pilot cutters excelled. Mr. Dijkstra could have chosen a gaff rig like for the Harlequin project but instead a carbonfiber bermuda rig was stepped well forwards, and not amidships like in the original pilot cutters: this enables large ketches to adopt the type as well. Interestingly the deck layout features a novelty: the "pilothouse" is a fusion of a modern decksaloon and of Endeavour's doghouse, affording comfortable seating for the crew whilst keeping in style with the vessel's "classic" appearance. The resulting yacht was so compelling to Mr. Dijkstra that he developed a 53ft pilot cutter to build for himself and which he named Bestevaer II. Following Christoffel's Lighthouse's launch, Mr. Dijkstra and his partners have acted along with fellow Dutch designer André Hoek to revive and modernise the pilot cutter with significant success.
For the relaunch of Endeavour in 1989, yacht designer Gerard Dijkstra created a doghouse that was not there before the restoration. The concept was enlarged for the pilot cutters to follow - photograph courtesy © Carlo Borlenghi

the 106ft pilot cutter Christoffel's Lighthouse racing in the Leeward islands (2003, Gerard Dijsktra design, built by Holland Jachtbouw - photograph courtesy © Jeff Brown)

the 106ft pilot cutter Christoffel's Lighthouse on a reach (2003, Gerard Dijsktra design, built by Holland Jachtbouw - photograph courtesy © Jeff Brown)

openwork transom of the 106ft pilot cutter Christoffel's Lighthouse (2003, Gerard Dijsktra design, built by Holland Jachtbouw - photograph courtesy © Jeff Brown)

pilothouse of the 106ft cutter Christoffel's Lighthouse (2003, Gerard Dijsktra design, built by Holland Jachtbouw - photograph courtesy © Jeff Brown)

sail plan of the 106ft pilot cutter Christoffel's Lighthouse (2003, built by Holland Jachtbouw - drawing courtesy © Dykstra & Partners)

56ft Dijkstra pilot cutter Tranquilo (2006 - photograph courtesy of © Kooi & Mast Yachtbuilders)

plumb bow of the 56ft Dijkstra pilot cutter Tranquilo (2006 - photograph courtesy of © Kooi & Mast Yachtbuilders)

85ft pilot cutter Windhunter II (builder Henk Borneman, designed by André Hoek, 2012 - photograph courtesy © Joep Niesink)

85ft pilot cutter Windhunter II (2012, builder Henk Borneman, drawing courtesy © André Hoek)

170ft ketch Elfje (2014, built by Royal Huisman, designed by André Hoek - photograph courtesy © Tom Nitsch)

launch of the 181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II - here her canoe underbody and dropkeel can be observed (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Johan Hiemstra)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II in sea trials (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Henk Westerink)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II in sea trials (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Henk Westerink)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II cruising in the Windward islands (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Cory Silken)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II cruising in the Windward islands (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Cory Silken)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II cruising in the Windward islands (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Cory Silken)

181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II cruising in the Windward islands (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Cory Silken)

plumb bow of the 181ft Dijkstra pilot ketch Kamaxitha II (2011, builder Royal Huisman - photograph courtesy © Cory Silken)

colonial-styled mahogany interior of the Kamaxitha II's pilothouse, designed by Rhoades & Young (2011 - photograph courtesy of the builder © Royal Huisman)


How to be a pilot - Gerard Dijkstra at his spyglass, aboard Bestevaer II

How to use a pilothouse - Gerard Dijkstra at his charttable, aboard Bestevaer II

The future is pretty anachronistic for Dykstra & Partners. Whilst they are involved in ultramodern yachts and ecoliner containerships, they are still developing pilot cutters and even extreme clippers. After the two 256-footers Stad Amsterdam and Cisne Branco, the keel of the 282ft clipper Orchid for the Oman navy has been laid down at Damen shipyards. The ship will surely need to hire pilots...
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