Boats that Built Britain display: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

BBC4 launches in May 2010 a TV season entitled ‘Sea Fever: the Story of Britain and the Sea.’ As part of this season Tom Cunliffe presents ‘Boats that Built Britain.’ This is a six-part documentary, which explores six historically important vessels.

In collaboration with this BBC4 TV season the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London is running ‘Boats that Built Britain’ an exhibition which is also accompanied by a series of six lectures that examine the role of sea fairing in assisting to build the British empire.

As part of this exhibition Defiant of Lyme Regis is going to be on display in the museum. Defiant of Lyme Regis is a 13 foot Bristol Channel pilot cutter’s rowing punt. I built Defiant in 2008 when I studied boat building at the Boat Building Academy in Lyme Regis.

Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters were used to take pilots out to sea to await inbound ships. Often there would be several pilot cutters on station waiting for a ship. This was a very competitive business and the first pilot cutter to get furthest westward of the ship secured the job. Hence the man in charge of the pilot cutter was known in Bristol as a ‘Westerman’ (Darch 1988).

The Dictionary of English Nautical Language (2007) defines a navigational pilot as:

A commercial ship operator who is especially qualified to operate ships in local coastal waters and into harbours, as in: “The pilot takes command of the bridge from Race Rock to dockside.” The pilot boards a visiting vessel and, for a fee, guides it safely into port or from port to open sea. Many ports require ships to hire the services of a pilot.

Darch (1988) writes a vivid description of the process of placing a pilot aboard a ship. He writes:

A pilot’s life was a dangerous one as ships had to be boarded day and night in all weather conditions. This was usually achieved by the cutter hailing the incoming vessel and asking the master to stop his ship and create a lee from the weather. The apprentice would make the dinghy or ‘punt’ as they were known, ready to be hauled over the port rail of the cutter (the Bristol cutters having higher rails used a gate). This was done by removing the ropes or ‘gripes’ securing it to the chocks on deck and most important of all, tying the bow line or painter forward of the rigging. The helm was lashed momentarily after the cutter had been sailed into the sheltered water behind the ship, though keeping a good distance away, as the vessel was being blown sideways towards them. The man who had been at the helm would assist in launching the punt stern first and then return to his station, while the pilot and apprentice clambered aboard the 12 or 13 foot clinker boat and the one oar carried was skillfully used over the transom by the apprentice to scull to the waiting ship. Darch, 1988, (page 47).

Darch, Malcolm (1988), Modelling Maritime History: a guide to the research and construction of authentic historic ship models, published by David and Charles, Pomfret, Vermont, USA.

Seatalk (2007) The Dictionary of English Nautical Language, (online) Available at: (accessed 15/04/2010)

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