The History of Pilot Cutters in the Scillies

Sail a Pilot Cutter in the Scillies

Classic Sailing offer you a chance to sail into history, by sailing amongst the Scilly Isles on a wooden pilot cutter as ships crew. Agnes is an authentic replica of the last Pilot cutter operating out of St Mary’s under sail. She offers 6 day sailing holidays, making the passage from the mainland, around the Lizard and beyond Lands End to the Isles of Scilly. Once in the islands we try to experience a different anchorage each night and explore ashore.  

Isles of Scilly for Pilots

In the 19th Century the Western Approaches off Lands End were probably the busiest shipping highway in the world. Tall ships and merchant vessels approached British Waters from every corner of the British Empire, and other nation’s fleets were sailing into the English and Bristol Channels to supply the activities of the Industrial Revolution accross Europe.

The Isles of Scilly had been notorious for shipwrecks through the ages, and the low lying reefs were still a major hazard to shipping.

The enterprising Scillionians turned this fear to advantage and for over 100 years the Pilot Trade was the island’s main economy.

Gig Boats & Pilot Cutters

If a ship stopped in St Mary’s Roads or passed close to the islands then a local pilot could be put aboard the ship by rowing gig boat.  These gigs had 6 oars and would even row the 35 leagues (95 miles) to France for lucrative cargoes, but their official job was the pilot trade.

‘S’ for Scilly Pilot Cutters

The pilot cutters based in the Scillies could meet ships many miles out into the Atlantic, and a nervous Captain would be keen to hail their pilot number to request their pilotage services, before he sailed too close to the archipelago. Pilots from different ports had an initial and number on their sail like F for Falmouth or B for Barry or CF for Cardiff. Each island in the Scillies had their own pilot cutters, even Sampson had two. They all had an S for Scilly on the sail.

St Marys Sound – Full of Ships

The heyday for sailing pilot cutters was around 1830-1860, when the anchorage off St Marys was thick with the masts of visiting ships, often waiting on better weather to continue to the Ports of London or Liverpool. Ships got bigger, the Suez Canal opened and steam ships arrived. The smaller cargo ships were forced into more coastal trade, and the bigger sailing ships started using Falmouth instead of Scilly for orders. Rivalry between Scillies Pilots and the larger Falmouth pilot cutters became quite cut throat, and in the end the Scillies vessels lost out to Falmouth

Pilot Cutter Research by Working Sail

If you want to read more and dive into true life tales of the Scillionian pilots then we recommend the book ‘Working Sail – My Life in Wooden Boats’ by Luke Powell. Luke built Eve of St Mawes, Agnes and in total eight pilot cutters. He and former wife Sarah spent a lot of time on the Isles of Scilly researching pilot cutters.

Luke is a great story teller and this is a book full of passion and adventure, mixing boat building triumphs and challenges with facinating maritime history. You could buy his book, or better still, sail with Luke Powell to the Scillies on Agnes and get him to tell you the tales.

The Original Agnes – Scillonian Pilot Cutter

The wreck of ‘Queen’ on St Martins beach inspired Luke Powell to build an authentic replica of the last pilot cutter to trade out of the Scillies. Alf Jenkin’s from the Scillies was related to that last pilot family and launched and named the new Agnes.

pilot cutters on the beach in Hugh Town, Scillies
pilot cutters on the beach in Hugh Town, Scillies.

Privateer and Revenue Lugger Grayhound 1776

Another modern day visitor to the Scillies is a replica of a 1776 Revenue Lugger Grayhound, built for the revenue service in St Ives.  It is quite likely the original Grayhound would have patrolled around the Isles of Scilly trying to catch smugglers.

Core Collection – UK Historic Ships Register

You can also sail on historic sailing ships like 1907 Irene. West CountryTrading ketches like Irene would have been a typical sight in St Mary’s Sound in the 19th Century. Deep sea sailing trawlers 1925 Provident or 1892 Leader also make regular visits.

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