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Maritime non-fiction / History

Illustrated history should bring pilotage to a wider public

Pilot Cutters Under Sail, by Tom Cunliffe

Image on landing page: illustration from Pilot Cutters Under Sail

book_pilot_cutters_under_sail_white_frame.jpgGiven that shipping as a whole is often 'out of sight, out of mind', it's a fair bet that most people outside the seafaring community haven't even heard of marine pilotage. Yet this is a profession which has been essential to safe vessel operation for centuries, and has its own proud history.

It's a history that author Tom Cunliffe believes should be better known, and in between his many technical works on sail training, he written three books on the pilotage of the past. His 2013 work Pilot Cutters Under Sail took the story up to the First World War, and has now been reissued in a beautifully illustrated paperback.

As Cunliffe explains, many of the sailing boats used for pilotage had a distinctive appearance related to their need for sturdiness and manoeuvrability. Images of these vessels are in plentiful supply throughout the book, which takes the reader on a tour through the English Channel, up the Bristol Channel and over to the Isles of Scilly, Le Havre in France and even to Norway.

The work of the pilots is evocatively described, and many of these hardy seafarers are pictured and even quoted from contemporary interviews. Material from the Trinity House archive features strongly, as we might expect, but the author draws on an impressive range of other historical sources to bring his subject to life. An extensive bibliography is given for those wanting to find out more, and there is a clear index to help the reader look up particular vessels.

True to his own background as a sailor and instructor, Cunliffe even gives some tips on how the old pilot cutters were handled, and identifies some surviving vessels and replicas that can still be seen today. It's a book written with expertise as well as love for its subject, and with its attractive presentation and interesting personal stories, Pilot Cutters Under Sail deserves to be read by more than just a niche audience.

Pilot Cutters Under Sail: Pilots and Pilotage in Britain and Northern Europe
By Tom Cunliffe
Seaforth Publishing, £16.99
ISBN: 978 15267 85435

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