September 2014 – Tom Cunliffe

Commodore Duncan Wheatley paid tribute to James Jacques, who died this month after a long illness.  James was one of the Club’s most distinguished members and will be greatly missed; Duncan extended condolences on behalf of the Club to partner Frances, who was with us in the audience. We look forward to hearing Frances tell us more about James, and their 15 year circumnavigation, at our October meeting.

Our speaker was Tom Cunliffe – a big man who has done some big and fairly intrepid things, many of them in big, heavy, traditional, boats. Tom’s theme was pilot cutters – boats that have a deserved reputation for seaworthiness, capability and elegance. He has owned several, pumped a lot of water through some of them, and was infectiously evangelical as to their virtues.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHMany of us associate pilot cutters with Bristol, and although this is not wrong they are not limited to that part of the world, despite the Bristol heritage. The Bristol Channel has strong tides of large range, and few havens. Shipping needed the guidance of pilots, whose boats had to be capable of sailing (and heaving-to) in difficult waters, and being crewed by a man and a boy – sometimes just the boy. We heard about the privations and dangers of being a pilot and Tom recounted the example of a pilot’s wife, who had kept marrying pilots after she was widowed by them, one after t’other. Seven of them, apparently.

Bristol Pilot Cutters are solidly built, long-keeled, gaffers with counter sterns, low freeboard and a gentle sheer. The Norwegian variety tend to be double-ended, often Colin Archers. As to seaworthiness and sea kindliness Tom explained stability curves, which show how the righting moment of a vessel relates to its angle of heel. These curves, though factually correct in their own terms, are misleading as they only show what happens to a heeled boat statically, in flat water. The dynamic of a boat moving through lumpy water is something else. Typical pilot cutters have large moments of inertia deriving from their construction, ballast and heavy spars. This gives them a slow reaction to upsetting forces – so slow that the problem wave or gust will often have passed by before the boat reacts in a significant or dangerous manner, unlike many modern designs.

Modern boat designers tend to think in terms of accommodation and equipment – pilot cutters were built first and foremost as boats; then and only then did the builders work out what to put in them.

In attempting to defend against an accusation of working on the Sabbath on a boat, in Brazil, Tom had mentioned that Jesus was a carpenter. “Maybe so”, came the reply, “but he didn’t have a power plane!”

We were accused of having a bourgeois attitude to leaks. Tom sees no problem in having to keep pumping, as long as one can keep up, and the pump doesn’t fail. Admittedly he had to half-inch his young daughter’s plimsoll sole on one occasion to replace a leather flap-valve…