Saturday, 16 April 2011


Arthur Ransome readers will know that the Sea Bear in Great Northern? was once a Norwegian pilot cutter. As far as I know Arthur Ransome never visited this Estuary but his account below perhaps describes something of the lives of pilots in the age of sail, here on the Exe as elsewhere.

"The cabin had been little changed since the days when the Sea Bear had been a working pilot cutter. There were still the six berths of the pilots, built as it were in the walls of the ship, above the long settees. Going to bed...was like getting into a rabbit hutch. But, once you were in, you could shut yourself off from everybody else by pulling a curtain across. Many a tired pilot must have slept in one of those bunks while the other pilots, only a yard or two away, were playing cards with each other under the cabin lamp. Further aft were two more bunks, one on each side, close to the companion ladder, handy for going on deck. They had been used in old days by the men whose business it was to take the cutter to sea to meet the big ships coming in, put pilots aboard them and pick up other pilots from the big ships outward bound."

Once upon a time Exmouth and Topsham were busy ports and the ships were lining up at sea waiting to sail up the Exe's tricky channels. In those days the pilot cutters must have been busy, sailing to and fro, from ship to ship, day and night, according to the tides.

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