What kind of sailing vessel is fast, weatherly, tough, easy to work shorthanded, shapely and heavy enough to punch through steep chop without chipping the crew’s teeth, and capable of duties ranging from fishing to cargo-hauling to lightering and delivering pilots to ships offshore? There may be more than one answer, but it would be hard to think of a more fitting boat than the small, gaff-rigged cutter that ranged the English Channel and beyond from about the turn of the last century until World War Two.
There were plenty of variations among their ilk, and they went (and still go) by various designs and designations – Bristol Channel Cutters, pilot cutters, Le Havre pilot boats, protection cutters -- but in general they share design characteristics that made them ideal for the variety of trades described above: They were on the small side for trade boats, somewhere around 50 feet long on deck, and had plumb or spoon bows with long bowsprits for carrying different headsail combinations. They were relatively heavy in displacement and had fine entries, full keels, carefully turned bilges with sweet runs, and usually pronounced counters overhanging the water aft of the rudder.
Speed was always of the essence, because during their heyday most of these boats were run independently by their owners, and would have to race to whatever job was at hand. They were able to go out in the roughest weather and claw to windward against a head sea at good speed, and the boat that got there first got the job.
Probably the most famous of the breed was the Le Havre pilot boat Jolie Brise, designed by Alexandre Paris and built by Albert Paumelle’s yard in 1913. She was 48 feet on deck, 56 overall, with a beam of almost 16 feet and a draft of 10 (count ‘em) 10 feet. John Leather, in The Gaff Rig Handbook, said that Jolie Brise commonly sailed at 8 knots and could make 9-10 knots “without appreciable wake.” After a short career in the commercial world, she became a legendary racing yacht, winning, among other laurels, the first Fastnet Race in 1925, and again in 1930. She did well in several Newport-Bermuda Races, but her most famous exploit in that race was the rescue of all but one of the crew of Adriana in 1932, when the schooner caught fire and was lost during the race. She went into retirement for a few decades, then came back out and took overall wins in the Tall Ships Transatlantic Race in 2000 and 2002.
That’s a slippery boat. And that’s the point: Lighter may be faster, usually and generically, but there are heavyweight designs that are capable of speed, comfort, and security combined. They are somewhat rare, and they are expensive. But don’t count them out. This is why there’s been a constant following for these iconic Channel cutters, and always a ready market for them. Today, according to the website of the Bristol Channel cutter Carlotta, there are only 17 original Bristol Channel Cutters left. This doesn’t count others like the Le Havre-launched Jolie Brise. She’s currently owned by Dauntsey’s School in England, and is in fine shape – Bristol condition, in fact – being sailed as a training ship and charter vessel. Her racing pedigree is also being maintained.
The success of the old channel thoroughbreds inspired the development of modern one-off and production cutters, with many of the most popular designs coming from the drafting table of Lyle Hess, who died in 2002 at age 90. More than any other designer, Hess carried the spirit of the channel boats forward, and the movement has been expanded by the long, successful, and well-publicized sailing careers of Lin and Larry Pardey aboard their Hess-designed 24-foot Serrafyn and their 30-foot Taleisin. Just as the Pardeys became known for voyaging in the engineless Serrafyn in the mid-1970s, the Hess-designed and unabashedly named Bristol Channel Cutter 28, a cutter rig with a boomkin and outboard-hung rudder, also took off in popularity. (Hess’s final design, the Falmouth Cutter 34, was in many ways simply an expanded model.) Scores of the 28s have been built since those days, mostly by the Sam L. Morse company of Costa Mesa, California.