‘Out punt!’: the Bristol pilot’s call

Captain George Buck recollects two night watches, five miles southwest of the Wolf Rock, waiting for an expected ship from Gibraltar. Despite the regulations over the display of pilot flags, lights and flares, contemporary accounts indicate these were at times ignored in order to gain advantage over other pilot cutters seeking a ship in need of their service.

Flags, flares, lights and the punt

On station the cutters were required to display a pilot flag which in 1849 became the white over red flag still in use today. At night an all round white light was displayed supplemented by a kerosene flare every 15 minutes with each port having a sequence code for displaying the flare. For example the flare code for Bristol was two shorts and a long. After 1858 the cutters were required to display sidelights at night when underway but contemporary accounts indicate that this was frequently ignored, especially in calms when it was not unusual for cutters to extinguish all their lights and get the sweeps out and row the cutter to gain a westerly advantage over other cutters.

The pilot’s boarding punt was kept on the port side, abaft the main rigging, stowed in chocks right way up. This was usually a clinker-built boat about 13ft length often painted white so as to be easily identified at night. Once a ship was encountered that required the services of the pilot, the ship would heave to while the cutter would work into the lee of the ship and 'out punt' to transfer the pilot across for boarding. One man and the pilot would do the rowing whilst the man remaining on board would sail clear single handed and once the pilot had shipped return close under the lee of the ship to recover the punt and other man. The cutter would then either sail or be towed back to the home port ready for the next run out.

Occasionally more than one pilot would be on board so the cutter would remain out on station looking for other work. I refer to both the cutter hands as 'men' but it was normally the case that these cutter hands were related to the pilots and were pilot apprentices themselves so there was no on board distinction of cox’n and deck hand.

Captain George Buck, an apprentice in the early 1900’s, recollects

Once we were hove to about 5 miles SW of the Wolf Rock, the wind had died away to a flat calm, the sea like a mirror, very dark without a cloud in the sky and the stars shining in the water the same as in the sky, all the lighthouses showing their lights all around the horizon and the Lizard light flashing in the sky. I was on 12 to 4 watch when a ship’s masthead light came in sight. I took a bearing and saw she would pass a long way to the north of us and, having no wind, the only thing I could do was show the Bristol signal on the flashlight, though as the flashlight was usually used by fishing boats in this area ships generally gave it a wide berth. We were expecting one of Pyman’s ships along, called the 'Cober', she being five days out from Gibraltar. I decided to call one of the pilots (we had two on board) and when he came on deck I suggested calling the other pilot, launching the punt and pulling as far as possible to get as close as we could, then to show the flashlight and hail her with the megaphone. We pulled until she was abreast of us, still more than a mile away, showed the flashlight and started to hail her, but eventually had to give up and had started to pull back to the skiff when we saw her port light come in sight and she came towards us, and sure enough it was the 'Cober' bound for Bristol. I put the pilot on board and he towed me back to the skiff. The next night we still a flat calm. In the 12 to 4 watch I heard my mate come below and tell the other pilot a ship was in sight a long way to the north. I turned out and suggested another pull, the pilot agreed and this time he took an oar and we made the punt fly through the water, stopping now and again to show the flashlight. We were just deciding to give up when she went hard-a-starboard and steamed towards us. She was bound for Bristol and of course I expected to be towed back to the skiff, but when the pilot suggested this to the captain he told him had lost a blade and a half of his propeller and wanted to make sure of his tide. The pilot looked over the bridge and told me but I did not care, being happy to think we had another ship, and started to row back. After pulling for some time I stopped to see if I could pick up the skiff’s light but with so many stars reflected in the water I could not find it but I could see the Wolf light and knew if I pulled in that direction I was bound to find her. It seemed I had been rowing for hours alone in the world and I started singing to keep myself company. Then I stopped rowing, looked around and saw a light and was close to the skiff. My mate was pleased to see me back and I often wonder how many miles I rowed that night.

With permission from John Clandillon-Baker, Editor: The Pilot UK Maritime Pilots’ Association

UK Maritime Pilots’ Association