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Maritime tales – dropping the pilot

24 September 2007 by stepheng

Back in the 1950s when I, Stephen Guy, was a child, Pilot matches were sold and used everywhere as many Britons smoked like chimneys and houses were heated with open fires. The trademark on the box included a wonderful old engraving of a pilot dressed in sou’wester hat and oilskins, clutching a ship’s wheel. This was obviously from the days of sail. After more than 100 years using sailing ships, it was not until 1896 that the first steamship – the Francis Henderson – was used by Mersey pilots.

Many pilots were against the introduction of steam, believing that the manoeuvrability of sailing ships and their ability to function in heavy weather could not be matched. However, the Francis Henderson – named after the chairman of the Pilotage Committee – proved them wrong and she saw successful service until 1917. A fine model of her is in the Merseyside Maritime Museum collections.

photograph of a large boat at a stone quay

The pilot cutter, Edmund Gardener

In 1913 an Act of Parliament laid down the framework for the modern system of pilotage, bringing all British ports into line. In Liverpool, pilotage is compulsory for all vessels over 250 tons. Certain ferries making regular visits, whose captains are familiar with the port, do not require pilots.

Until 1982, pilots stayed on board pilot boats anchored in Liverpool Bay. These could accommodate up to 40 pilots and apprentices. The last of these pilot cutters was the 701-ton Edmund Gardner, now preserved in dry dock on the Historic Quaysides – the largest ship in the Maritime Museum’s collection. Built in 1953, she was one of a new generation of diesel-electric powered vessels built to replace the pre-war steam cutters. Lovingly looked after by museum staff and volunteers, she is preserved as she appeared during her working life.

Today pilots travel to incoming vessels using high-powered launches after being alerted exactly when the ship will arrive in Liverpool Bay. The Shearwater was one of these fast pilot launches, notable because she sank in an accident in 1987. Fire broke out in her engine room and she foundered off the Mersey Bar. Her crew, having fought the blaze for 20 minutes, were picked up by another pilot launch.

Even in the days of sail, pilots sometimes could not board vessels because of atrocious weather conditions. A painting by J Witham (1831–1901) in the museum collections shows a remarkable incident that took place in February 1881. The pilot schooner, Leader, led a fleet of vessels safely over the Bar during a north-westerly gale in conditions too severe to allow pilots to board.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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