Poole Pilot Boats

Pilotage at Poole

“It is a requirable also in a good Pilot that in sailing in or out of any river or haven he be sufficiently acquainted along the reach from buoy to buoy or beacon to beacon; and that he be a diligent observer of all capes, points, steeples and all other like marks; and how the mouth of the haven reacheth into the sea and what depth it hath as well as within as without”

Boteliers Dialogues 1685


An Act to make new provision in respect of pilotage.

A.D. 1987

With these words Parliament was bringing to an end a centuries old tradition. The Corporation of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond – “Trinity House” to all sailors – will be relinquishing its control of the country’s pilotage service.   From then on it will be the responsibility of Harbour Authorities to maintain the remarkable standards of professional skills and dedication which have safeguarded the entering and leaving of British ports for all types of ships of all nations.

Poole Pilotage under the aegis of Trinity House

The origins of Trinity House are traceable long back in history, though Henry Vlll gave them first responsibility for navigation and pilotage.   It is a British Institution which defies logic and yet works well.   In 1803 Parliament gave it responsibility to bring together all the services into an organisation able to control the transition from sail to steam, control the work of pilots serving coastal vessels or great liners and whose personnel, as part of their everyday work, exercise remarkable skills of shiphandling.

Sub-commissioners were appointed for each port to draw up regulations for their own port – at Poole they at Scaplens Court in January 1803.   The regulations made then retain the basic system of operation modified as necessary to suit local conditions. Pilots are licensed to charge by a scale of dues for services within the area from Christchurch ‘head to Peverill Point.   The Pilots are self-employed and independent. They make their own employment rules but must be within the many regulations for prevention of collision at sea, the law of the land, local harbour bye laws and Trinity House regulations.

If a vessel requires a pilot one must be available, at any time, on any day. The pilots must therefore organise themselves on a round the clock basis. Time on and off, holidays, sickness must all be accommodated. There are no temporary pilots to cover, they must all be licensed. To reach the ships pilots must have boats, similarly available at all times  The Pilots therefore have responsibility for the boats and crews.

Boats can be a major problem. They must be strong, superbly sea-worthy, have a reserve vessel, have strong engines, be reliable and equipped to a high specification in terms of navigation and safety. The pilots have to provide these and cover their costs. Much negotiation is required to set the charges as Pilots, Harbour Masters and ship owners all have strong views on these! All this means the pilots must have a good business sense and co-operation from the sub-commissioners who appoint them. Cost cutting is not an option!

This was not always so as for the first 100 years of their existence the sub-commissioners thought they were supervisors of the pilots. The pilots were expected to compete amongst themselves for work but there was evidence of shared earnings or ‘combinations’ amongst the pilots where they shared a cutter and other competing cutters were working as another team. It was feared that this method of operation would restrict the keenness of the pilots. So one solution was to appoint pilots to work out of Swanage, but this failed as cutters big enough to work out of the bay in heavy weather could not easily be berthed there. As an alternative Fishermen pilots were appointed, who worked when they wanted to, but this caused a lot of acrimony as the latter creamed off the business in good weather using their regular boats which were unfit to sail in bad weather. There were charges and counter charges, a law suit regarding unlicensed boats and eventually the idea was allowed to lapse.

Other concerns were familiar to us today:- Which vessels required pilotage? Was the use of a steam tug cause to exempt the vessel? Were the pilots over-charging? How many pilots were needed to provide a good service and allow for a good quality of living?

The number of pilots followed the fortunes of the harbour trade, the maximum was 16 and minimum 9, but these numbers are confused by the fishermen pilots and those holding licenses but not practising.   So with the boats, the maximum was 4, operating in pairs so one of a pair was always available during refit periods – but this caused dissent as it meant changing teams owing to differing boat sizes.

The Pilot service at Poole was almost a family occupation with sons and nephews learning as apprentices in the cutters. Family names recur, Stone, Wills, Brown. The main requirement was intricate knowledge of the harbour, ship handling being less specialised than it is now, the pilots using their fishing boat skills.

Reprieve – an early Pilot cutter

Details of one of the boats named “Content” in use around 1869 were, length on deck 40 feet, length overall 45 feet, Beam 10 feet 6 inches, depth of hold 7 feet 6 inches, cutter rigged Fore and Aft about 17 ½ tons.

Some important changes in the pilot service since then:-

1)      Technological changes that have made accurate ETA’s of ships possible, enable larger vessels to enter and leave the port in all but impossible conditions, made a great contribution to safety and require quite a different skill level to that of sailing ships.

2)      Social changes that make the pilots and coxswains a team within a ‘professional’ service with a status in the community which would have been envied by the generation of earlier pilots.

3)      Changes in duties – the harbour authorities and the pilots have to develop a new working partnership.

Some incidents from the past:-

1)      We may remark that ‘Vivid’ is unmanageable, as we know when near ground, and had she been tried without a steamer she would have been a lost ship. If it were needful the Pilots can appeal the absence of accidents for the last 20 years as a proof that they have not been wanting in their duty….

William King on behalf of the pilots answering a complaint from the owner of the ‘Vivid’ 17/12/1860.

2)      The number of vessels entering the port being on the increase owing to a railway communication with the interior of this part of the County…..we think it advisable to increase the present number of Licensed Pilots by the addition of one.

Sub-Commissioners to Trinity House March 1848

3)      They appear to have practised a deception by painting upon their bows of their boats numbers purporting to be the number of the licenses of such boats whereas no such licenses are in existence.

Summons against fishermen pilots for using unlicensed boats 5/6/1885

4)      ….and upon enquiring if they intended to abide by it (notice on combinations) they used the MOST THREATENING and abusive language lest they should be interfered with.

Sub-Commissioners to Trinity House on pilot’s attitudes  9/1/1885

5)      Studland Bay is no place to lay in Winter time with the wind North North East……  We hauled the anchor up about 4 a.m. but when we got towards the Breakwater the flood tide coming in and the wnd dropping we were jammed.   At daylight we saw a schooner ashore with the headsails up on the Hook Sand about 3 buoys in.

William Stone….enquiry into the grounding of the ‘Volunteer’   November 1896

6)      The trade of the port has not diminished as stated….but there are a larger number of vessels the Masters of which do not take pilots.

Sub-Commissioners to Trinity House  25/3/1868

7)      CAUSE OF OCCURENCE: Owing to gales of wind the sand shifted by our Marks 13 feet on the Bar at the time.

Report of the grounding of Queen Wistley  9/1/1888

Pilot’s Point and pier in background. Far end of Shell bay.


Tom Sherrin arrives

Tom Sherrin was commissioned and named on 15th July 1970 and is described as a replacement for

Cutter No.1.   The programme included assembling in the lounge of the Shipwrights’ Arms, (a Public House now demolished but situated on the south side of the little channel, there are still some public steps there known as Shipwrights steps).   The naming ceremony took place on the quay and was performed by Mrs. T.W. Sherrin.   Mrs. Sherrin had the misfortune to miss the boat with the bottle of champagne which promptly sank.   Afterwards the assembled company were amused – and somewhat mortified – to see two divers appear with the missing bottle and toast the health of thse present!

Subsequently many adjustments and alterations had to be made to the engine with little result and it was felt the time had come to replace the engine with a new one.   Not good news as this was only in May 1971, less than a year after commissioning.   However it was not until 1974 that the work was eventually costed and agreed.

In July 1971 an incident occurred in the harbour whereby a launch “Anjalyn” was hit and sunk by the “Esso Hythe” whilst she was proceeding near No 8 buoy.   The “Anjalyn” was hit on the stem by the port quarter of the “Esso Hythe” sank by the bows, the Coxswain (Mr. Mabe) jumping off the stern and being picked up by a passing fishing boat, although the Esso Hythe had made preparations to launch a rescue boat.

In 1982 new offices were opened by Sir Miles Wingate KCVC, the Deputy Master of Trinity House, the report stating that they had been furnished within budget and that parking spaces had been allocated.

In 1986 Coxswain Bill Hayes retired after 33 years service.   Born in Green Road, Poole he went fishing until the War when he went on patrol in Motor Torpedo Boats.   After the war he spent a further 3 years in the Merchant Navy followed by 3 years with Parkstone Yacht Club.   He spent 35 years as a member of the Lifeboat crew, when he started the Lifeboat was a rowing boat.

Early days as a Pilot Cox were long and sometimes dangerous, with no electronic radio or navigation equipment, it often meant sleeping on the Cutter in Shell Bay awaiting a ship’s arrival, the time being uncertain.   He probably knew the harbour as well as the Pilots and in his time was involved in several rescues.

Bill Hayes on retirement with Tom Sherrin and JoJo in the background

To be continued