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Bristol Pilot by John Hone article published ‘Everybody’s Weekly Magazine’ 1949
"The world has no better pilots than those who navigate the ‘tall ships’ in and out of the great West-country port of Bristol. In this article ‘Everybody’s’ special correspondent tells the story of an ancient and exacting service".
She only measured a few hundred tons, yet to the Bristol merchants she was a "tall ship, well found withal," and truly her painted sails and ﬂuttering pennants made a brave show.
But the man on her poop was not concerned with decorations. It was his task to steer her down the winding Avon, through Clifton Gorge, past unmarked sandbanks and shoals to the deep waters; those waters that stretched uncounted leagues westward to new and wondrous lands beyond the sunset.
It was May, 1497, when that little ship left Bristol. She was commanded by John Cabot, destined to discover Newfoundland, and he who brought her safely to the open sea was James George Ray, of Pill, near Avonmouth.
One week later the burgesses and commissioners of Bristol ‘granted him their ﬁrst pilot’s licence, and thus he can justly be described as the father of Bristol pilotage. There has been a pilot Ray ever since,‘ and in 1949, four hundred and fifty-two years later Sidney Ray, a direct descendant of James George, is carrying on the honourable tradition. ‘
Certainly the world has no better pilots than those who live at the little town of Pill on the Somerset bank. Father, grandfather, great-grandfather, back into the past they and their ancestors have brought the tall ships in and out of Bristol; the ships that ply the seaways to the ports of all the earth.
They have inherited an ancient and exacting calling, but like many another, it has lost something of its old-time colour. Until 1921, each pilot used his own sturdy sailing cutter worked by a crew of two, romantically entitled ‘westernmen.’ Competition between pilot and pilot was relentless, and in fair weather or foul they were forced to seek incoming ships far out in the Atlantic or southward of Ushant and in the chops of the Channel.
But their comradeship ashore was all the greater for their ruthless struggles at sea. Times change, and today the pilots have formed a limited company owning two steam and two motor cutters. The main steam cutter cruises off the Breaksea lightship about thirty miles from Avonmouth, to meet incoming vessels requiring pilots, and to pick up pilots leaving outward bound ships, while the other is stationed at Portishead.
Training for the service is long and arduous. Five years apprenticeship, then deep sea voyages until a Master’s Foreign Going Certificate is obtained, followed by a severe examination for a pilot’s licence. A man is thirty-one before he can hope to be appointed to a place among the allotted thirty who comprise the chosen band of Bristol pilots.
If Master James George Ray could return to Pill, he would have no cause to complain of his successor’s competence.
Some days ago, I met pilot George Buck on Avonmouth dockside. Through the courtesy of Commander R. Walker, Haven, Master of Bristol, it was arranged I should sail with Mr. Buck, join the cutter at sea, and return in the next inward bound ship requiring a pilot.
A rust-streaked craft with a stove-pipe funnel lay in the lock, and Mr. Buck was scheduled to take her out to the Breaksea light. We climbed aboard, picking our way across refuse littered decks and up on to the bridge. Her polyglot crew chattered in a dozen different languages, but the chequered ensign of Panama hung in dingy folds at her stern.
We Moved Ahead
"We get all sorts,” remarked pilot Buck. “One turn it’s like this, and another the very latest type with radar equipment and a gyroscopic compass.”
We moved slowly out of the lock and passed between the buoys marking the deep water channel. The seaways leading from all British harbours are so marked. When putting to sea the cone-shaped buoys are on your left and the can-shaped ones on your right.
Once upon a time I was not too sure of this rule, and nearly lost my life in consequence. So I memorised the following magnificent jingle. “ When leaving harbour you did ought to Keep can to starboard cone to port.” There are many better rhymes to aid memory, but bad as this is, it was my own, and served its purpose. The telegraph clanged again to ‘Full’ and the shore receded. A lightship lay dead ahead and a buoy lifted and swung in our wake.
Pilot Buck glanced into the binnacle. “A line from the English and Welsh Grounds light to the Welsh Hook buoy bears exactly west, magnetic,” he remarked. “I always check the compass by it. Sometimes, on a ship like this, it’s a bit out of adjustment and a point one way or another can make all the diﬂerence"
Visibility was perfect, but with generations of sea-lore behind him he would take no chances, for, like many another of his craft, Mr. Buck has descended from a long line of pilots. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather brought the good ships into Bristol, and eight uncles with ages totalling 660 years between them followed the same calling.
A swarthy figure in rope-soled sandals and canvas trousers peered round the wheel-house. “ You will ‘ave dinner – yes–no ? " he asked. We said “yes," but he vanished, and two hours later, when the cutter came to take us off, we were still hoping for that dinner.
The red and white ﬂag, signifying that a pilot is present, came down, and we clambered aboard the cutter. Our Panamanian friend, left to her own devices, chugged off to the west. How long she could endure such neglect and stay afloat was anyone’s guess, but I hate to see a ship maltreated.
There was a very different atmosphere in the cutter. She was businesslike and trim and her brasswork glittered. Pilot’s duties are divided into three sections of a week each. Section I, taking ships into Bristol, Avonmouth or Portishead; Section II, taking them out, and Section III, on reserve. Apart from her master and mate, G. Dickens and C. T. Batten, she had ﬁve pilots aboard awaiting their turn of Section I duty. Messrs. Rowles, Gilmore, Vowles, Rowland and Ray, the last named being the direct descendant of James George. Between them, I believe, the achievements and adventures of those quiet, competent men would be sufficient to fill several books.
Good To Be Aﬂoat
I was to go aboard the ‘Ficus’ with Pilot C. Rowland, and according to our list she was due to be sighted at about 5 p.m. Meanwhile it was good to be afloat and to talk with these men of the sea. The sun shone and the water was a sparkling ultramarine, “but don’t imagine it’s always like this,” they said. And I knew enough to understand their meaning. When gales howl out of the west and Atlantic rollers surge unchecked across three thousand miles into the gigantic funnel of the Bristol Channel; when fog reduces visibility to zero, or when frozen spray and blinding sleet turn rope ladders into death traps, a pilot’s life is hard indeed.
They told me of a cutter run down by a steamer. Two of the crew, being youngsters, grabbed her anchor ﬂukes and climbed on to the fo’csle, but the pilot, older and heavier, could only hang by his arms. “ For God’s sake help me, or I must let go I " he cried in despair, and at the last minute they managed to lower a loop of rope and haul him aboard to safety.
During the war, Pilot Vowles was on a small Dutch steamer when she was about to weigh anchor. He ordered the mate to “ Heave away,” and as the windlass started clacking, its sound set off an acoustic mine. The little craft was blown to pieces and Vowles and the mate were hurled into the sea. They were the only survivors. One night a dance was being held on Penarth pier. It was black, as the pitch and blowing a full gale, but inside the pavilion there was light and music. Out in the darkness a Cardiff pilot was struggling to bring a big ship into ‘port, but she got out of hand, fouling the pier and wrecking the pavilion. Imagine the scene ! One moment music, and the next, the crashing timbers, the screaming, and rending of metal‘ as ten thousand tons of ship walked into a flimsy dance hall. It is said they were playing ‘ Open the Door Richard’
The mate swung his telescope on a small coaster heading east. We ﬂashed our signal, but evidently her skipper knew these waters, and as pilotage for coasters is not compulsory she proceeded on her way. To southward the coast of Somerset shone clear in the westering sunlight and I commented on the colour of its rock formations. It was then I discovered that Pilot Vowles has a passion for geology and that his knowledge of the subject is exceptional ; and that the mate was a convinced spiritualist, Pilot Vowles a connoisseur of classical music and Pilot Ray an enthusiastic amateur gardener. Another of the brotherhood, Pilot H. S. Watkins, makes superb model yachts, perfect in every detail, and has been requested by the Bristol Museum authorities to rehabilitate their ship models damaged or destroyed in air raids.
It was about 5.30 p.m. when we sighted the ‘Ficus’ and steamed to meet her. Half an hour later we drew alongside and her streaming topsides towered above us. I followed Pilot Rowland up the rope ladder and on to her bridge, and his red and white ﬂag was hoisted. The ‘ Ficus ’, was nineteen days out from Tampico and bound for Avonmouth with a cargo of gas oil.
Steered By ‘Degrees
After weeks at sea, even with radio communications, printed matter is always welcome, and Captain Mowat, her master, was glad to receive the bundle of newspapers handed to him by Pilot Rowland.
“What are you drawing, captain?” asked Rowland.
“Twenty-nine feet,“ was the reply.
This meant our keel was 29 feet below the waterline. Before a ship is allowed into Avonmouth, there must be a margin of depth of water in excess of her draught. We were due about midnight and as the tide was high there would be plenty. We got under way again, and “ Ninety- ﬁve,” ordered the pilot. “Ninety-ﬁve,” echoed the man at the wheel. She was a modern ship and steered by ‘degrees’ instead of the older ‘points.’ I confess, I prefer the more romantic-sounding ‘east a quarter south’ or ‘east by north’ of tradition. ‘
The islands of Flatholm and Steepholm lay ahead and we were steering to pass between them. The crew lined up for their Saturday night’s tot of grog; a steward ﬂung a bucket of refuse overboard and the gulls swept down from all directions in a .squawking, ﬂuttering mob; the smoke from our funnel spread low over the water astern.
“A ship was wrecked near here,” said Mr. Rowland. “She was piloted by a man named Denham and he was in the water for hours before being picked up. He managed to keep his pocket torch dry and they saw the light.
The spot is still marked on the charts as ‘ Denham’s wreck.’ ”
Cold And Grey Sea
The sun had gone down and the sea looked cold and grey. I thought of Pilot Denham out there in the water with his pocket torch, a little spark of life that refused to be quenched. It was quite dark when we drew abreast of Clevedon. Ahead, and to port and starboard, the buoys and beacons twinkled and flashed, and a big Donaldson liner passed us outward bound. We signalled that Walton pilot station, giving our name, draught, destination and pilot. This would be telephoned to Avonmouth for the dock above our bridge, two lights, white over red. Walton station sprang to life again.‘ Go up to the dock no sailings,” they ﬂashed; meaning that the way was clear and we could proceed as there were no ships coming out. .
“Tugs in ﬁve minutes," said the pilot as the mast-head lights of three tugs could be seen edging in towards us.’
“One tug forward and two aft, one on each quarter, captain " and soon they had taken up their positions like well trained sheep dogs.
"Stop her!" Fora while our engines ceased their pulsing and, escorted by the tugs, we drifted slowly towards the Royal Edward Dock entrance. Two lights-white over green, were hoisted at the pier head, the signal to enter, and the order was given,‘ Slow ahead.’
There was no shouting, no excitement or confusion. The tug-masters received their instructions by whistle blasts, and apart from an occasional order from the pilot to helmsman, everything was calm; the bridge might have been a well regulated ofﬁce.
Yet it was dark and a ship of 503 feet from stem to stern, 86-foot beam and with a cargo of 13,000 tons was being manoeuvred into a comparatively narrow lock. Tide, drift, side wind and capillarity attraction all had to be taken into account, but a life-time’s experience was behind the pilot’s orders and they were obeyed promptly and with complete confidence.
My Work Finished
In 1905, when this dock was opened, my father piloted the first ship in," said Mr. Rowland. "She was the ‘Victoria and Albert’ with King Edward VII aboard."
When I commented on the skill required to bring a great ship into dock, Captain Mowat remarked, “It’s much the same as driving a car into a garage."But, like most seamen, he is over-modest. There is very much more in it than that. Slowly, slowly, the ‘ Ficus’ slid into the lock. In the light of an electric standard I noticed a small group of women gazing expectantly up at our towering superstructure. They were oﬂicers’ wives who had travelled hundreds of miles from the four corners of Britain to see their husbands.
Tankers discharge their cargo rapidly, and the ship would sail again in less than thirty hours. Not very long to be with a husband after months of separation. But such is the lot of a deep sea sailor’s wife. Stern and bow lines were cast ashore and, secured to the bollards, she came to rest at rest, after crossing four thousand miles of ocean.
“Well, that’s my Work finished,” said Pilot Rowland as he stepped into the chartroom for his raincoat. ‘ ‘Good night, captain.”. “These pilots do a damned good job of work,’ remarked the second officer as he made an entry in the log.
I wonder what Master James George Ray, of Pill, would think?