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Isles of Scilly pilot cutter history
A treacherous place
The Isles of Scilly are a group of five inhabited islands, and over one hundred small islands and rocks, twenty eight miles south west of Land’s End in Cornwall, England. Being the first landfall for vessels bound for the English, Bristol and St George’s channels, ships would put into St Mary’s for orders, victualling, repairs, exchange of letters and waiting for a fair wind up channel. Although Scilly was a dangerous place to enter, particularly in bad weather when one’s exact position was unknown, the assistance of a local pilot with intimate knowledge of the rocks, reefs and tides turned this treacherous place into a safe haven that could provide many of the much needed services required after a long voyage.
The finest cutters in all of England
Forty six pilot cutters worked from the Isles of Scilly during the nineteenth century, with an average of three or four cutters stationed at each of the five main islands at any one time. The pilot cutters had to be fast, strong and seaworthy as they sailed the open seas all year round, going far out into the Atlantic in search of ships. Speed was essential in order to compete with other vessels to get their pilot aboard ship first in order to secure the job. The worse the weather the more their assistance was required which meant they not only had to cope with bad conditions but successfully operate in them. The Scillonian cutters developed a reputation as some of the finest pilot cutters in England having evolved to successfully ply their trade in some of the worst sea conditions in the British Isles.
Designed for speed, power and seaworthiness
The pilot cutters from these Isles had powerful hulls, broad of beam to support a large rig, deep v-shaped sections with a square fore-foot and upright stern post giving them exceptional grip and stability in the water. With lean bows and a fine lute stern (the forerunner to the counter stern), they were able to cut through the seas with ease when fighting to windward. They were tiller steered with a flush deck and high bulwarks designed more for heavy seas than for light airs. Unlike later pilot cutters from around the coast they had a cargo hatch aft of the main mast, the hold being used for carrying supplies out to ships before they arrived in port. For extra revenue the cutters ran early potatoes to Wales, and to Southampton for transportation to Covent Garden.
Ship builders on St Mary’s
All but two of the pilot cutters to work from the Islands during the nineteenth century were built in the shipyards on St Mary’s. These yards had developed from humble beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century, when the first pilot cutter was built in 1793, to an industry supporting four shipyards by 1838. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the pilot cutters being built on the Islands were modest vessels, ranging from 36’ to 40’ in length. By the 1850’s the average size of vessels being built had increased to just over 50’ and by 1870 four cutters were over 60’, two of which were built this size and two which had been lengthened. Lengthening vessels was common practice throughout the period as a more economical way of remaining competitive with the new larger cutters. Presto became the largest cutter in the Isles of Scilly after being lengthened in 1866 to 69’ although Gem 2, the last cutter built on the Islands in 1875, was the largest new build at 63’.
End of an era
By the late 1870’s pilotage in the Isles of Scilly was in decline due to the increased use of steam and the increasing size of ships which were now being built of iron. This new breed of ship steamed past the Isles preferring the services of Falmouth with its new dock and railway facilities. The Scillonian pilots aboard their proud vessels were now being shunned in preference of the Falmouth pilots who by the early 1880’s were sailing beyond Scilly looking for incoming ships to guide into their home port. The demise of the Scillonian pilot cutters was swift, by 1885 A.Z. and Rapid were broken up and used for fencing on Bryher, the following year Presto and Atlantic from St Mary’s and Gem from St Agnes were sold to pilots on the mainland. Tresco’s New Prosperous was lost at sea, while on St Martins Queen and Argus were put ashore to rot. Leaving only the Agnes, the last remaining cutter working alone and becoming known as the rosta as pilots from all the islands took turns to go out on her seeking what ships they could. When she finally finished with pilotage in 1896 the remaining pilots carried on their trade using the gigs, but pilotage could no longer support them as a full time occupation and soon they turned to the new economy of the Islands, growing flowers.