The tidal range of the Bristol Channel has always been a challenge to shipping approaching from the Atlantic, and conditions were hard for the pilots and their crews, with occasional loss of life. We have recollections by two Bristol Channel pilots from Pill, working the pilot skiffs during the early part of the 20th century.
Several pilots and hobblers, the boatmen who took the mooring lines, lost their lives in this service. However, their losses were remarkably low, considering the conditions they suffered, and were probably no more than those of other occupations during the 19th century. The testimony as to the seaworthiness of the skiffs and the relationship between the men and their craft is summed up here by Captain George Buck:
. . . when boarding ships at night during dirty weather, we were always glad when we had the punt back on board. In the daytime we took little notice of the weather and it had to be very bad when we could not board and it was not very often we had to run for shelter. The skiffs were fine craft and in bad weather would heave-to with the fore sheet to windward and the helm lashed a little down and they would work to windward off a lee shore.
Wilf Buck recollects ‘a bit of a blow’ in the 1930s
We hadn’t been running back for long when someone shouted. I looked aft and there was what seemed to be the largest wave I had ever seen, overtaking us. It was just beginning to break at the crest and it was obvious that we couldn’t ride this one. The two older men were hanging onto the tiller and us boys just clung on, there was nothing else to do. It passed almost before we realised it and it seemed we were going to be all right. Then we realised that the wave was filling the main and it just couldn’t stand up to that weight of water, but before anyone could free the sheets or do anything it carried away. It’s a good job it was on the quarter or it would have pooped us completely. One second we were roaring along, the next we had the boom over the side with the rigging carried away, of course, she was pretty old and not very well cared for. Luckily the mast stayed up but we were in trouble if we didn’t do something quick.
Fred was the first to move, he was a fairly small man with a squeaky voice that kids took the mickey out of, but he was like two men that night, he saved us. He shouted at us to pull, and pull we did. We’d never have done it without him but eventually we managed to secure everything and ran back under jib alone. We were back in Pill reach before anyone saw us, neither Walton Bay nor Avonmouth signals saw us go by. People had begun to worry because we hadn’t made Barry and no-one knew where we had got to. It seemed most of the village were down watching us come in and the hobblers took over the boat to moor it up for us. As we came ashore in the ferry boat, I looked down longshore and all the lamp standards were down, so it must have been a bit of a blow.