Book Highlights Importance Of Scilly’s Pilotage Industry

pilot cutters bookThe importance of Scilly’s historic pilotage industry is being highlighted in a new book.

In ‘Pilot Cutters Under Sail’, author Tom Cunliffe describes how for a short time at the end of the 19th century, pilots based on the islands were some of the most knowledgeable in Northern Europe, although life was tough and few records remain.

Tom says the so-called “Channel Pilots” based in Scilly had the pick of ships coming in from the Atlantic.

And their experience was in demand by captains who needed guidance through the English Channel and through St George’s Channel to the Irish Sea.

The pilot cutter boats, many of which were built here on the islands, evolved into some of the biggest on the water, with a deep draft that kept them stable in the open seas, says Tom.

Many went far into the Atlantic in search of vessels.

The enterprising Scillonians were also unique in being the only pilots to trade with the ships they were escorting.

Tom says the cutters often had a special hold to carry goods, which they sold to crews that had often been at sea for months and were desperate for fresh provisions.

But the romantic image of pilot cutters, conjured up by the replicas that regularly visit Scilly in the summer, hides a tough and dangerous life for their crew.

Tom says they had to go out in all weathers and many pilots lost their lives while transferring to the larger ships in rowing boats.

He says the sheer hardship of the profession is difficult for us to image these days.

Tom says researching the pilots in Scilly was difficult because, unlike those in other areas like the Bristol Channel, there’s little written down about either the men or their boats.

There are records, though, of the fierce political arguments that broke out between Scilly’s pilots and Trinity House, who ran the industry, with the Smith family on Tresco often wading in to protect the local pilots.

By 1870, pilotage in Scilly had begun to die out as bigger and faster steam-powered vessels preferred to dock in Falmouth, with it’s railway and easy access to fuel.

Pilot Cutters Under Sail, priced £30, is available on Tom Cunliffe’s website here.