The pilot cutter Alpha was built at Fleetwood in Lancashire in 1904 by Liver & WIlding, under the master shipwright William Stoba. This man was once described as “exact and temperamental and if he did not get what he wanted he went home, as he did on the day a lad brought him galvanised nails when he had ordered copper. On being told there were no copper nails in store he reached for his hat and coat saying he might as well go home, as there was no point in staying with no work to do, and he could not work without the right materials.” An apprentice caught sharpening a pencil with a knife would get a sharp crack over the knuckles. “ What is your chisel for”? Stoba would bark. A later employer of his is said to have lamented that “ Stova would be the ruining of them all with his demands for tropical hardwoods and expensive fittings. He was a perfectionist and he thought it was not his business to worry how much things cost.”
Alpha appears in the Newport
Alpha appears in the Newport pilotage authority’s Register of Pilot Cutters on December 8th 1904. Her (Thames) tonnage was recorded as 17, her port of registry, Newport, and the fee paid was 2s 6d. The cutter was built for pilot William Prosser of 18 Arthur Street, Newport. She was named Alpha, it seems, because Prosser’s pilot number was one. William Davies, married to Prosser’s sister, Pat, was another pilot aboard. The pilotage returns show both William Prosser and William Davies as pilots in Alpha up until as late as March 31st 1922, and she remained in the Prosser family until 1924. It appears that the Newport pilots amalgamated in 1914, yet as late as 1920 there were still 19 pilot boats left. By 1923, after the Newport (Monmouth) Pilot Boat Company Limited had been formed, only five cutters were owned by the company, and Alpha was not one of these.
Alpha appears in the Newport
Her fairly cutaway underwater profile made Alpha no typical example of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, but it earned her an enviable record for speed, particularly in light winds. Indeed, she was considered by many to be one of the fastest craft of her type. Alpha took part in the 1906 River Usk Pilot Cutter Race of which there is a famous photograph showing six cutters off Nell’s Point below Barry. On that occassion, she was beaten into third place by Hope and by her fellow centenarian, Mascotte. But Alpha had won the Cardiff Regatta in 1905, and William Prosser’s descendants still have the magnificent cup, which at one time lived on Alpha.
In 1924 Alpha was acquired by Sir Sidney Rowlatt
In 1924 Alpha was acquired by Sir Sidney Rowlatt, a high-court judge and author of India’s notorious Rowlatt Act of 1919. Before the First World War, he had built a substantial Edwardian summer retreat at Nansidwell, between the north bank of the Helford River and Falmouth Bay. He was elected rear commodore of the Royal Cruising Club in 1921, and Alpha, now known as Black Bess, first appears in the Lloyd’s Register of Yachts in 1924; she remained in Rowlatt’s ownership until 1931. For the majority of his ownership, Rowlatt kept Black Bess in falmouth harbour, although by 1928 he had sold the Nansidwell retreat to which he and his six children had come each summer. According to John Buchan, the creator of the fictional Richard Hannay, Rowlatt had a “boyish zest for sailing… in the gusty channel”. It is known from the log of Cariad (another of the centenarians) that in August 1926 Cariad met Black Bess off Dodman Point; and, to quote from the log, that Black Bess then “sailed away from Cariad.”
In the 1937 season, Alpha cruised to Portsmouth
In the 1937 season, Alpha cruised to Portsmouth, attending the fleet review on May 20th to mark George VI’s coronation; according to the log, the Royal Yacht sailed within 100 yards of Alpha. That summer she was left on the Hamble, and later in the year she cruised to Belgium, Holland and France. At the end of that season she wintered at Shoreham for work to be carried out on her. In 1937, too, a new petrol engine was installed which, according to the log entries, caused plenty of problems at the outset, before eventually behaving. No entries exist in the log for 1938. In 1939 Alpha sailed from the Hamble to Trouville, Cherbourg, Guernsey, Dartmouth, Fowey and Falmouth. The log shows that on September 1st 1939 the women on board were put ashore in the Yealm river, after news of Germany’s invasion of Poland. The boat then sailed to Dartmouth, and there she was laid up for the duration of the war.
After the war
After the war
Alpha was fitted out again after the war in 1947, and her first sail was from Dartmouth to St Mawes. There are no further entries for 1947. The entries for the post-war years are not as comprehensive as for the pre-war ones. Mike Humphries has a letter from Neil macFadyen, who says that his father, Eric, was a joint owner of Alpha, with David Warner. However, the surviving log entries appear to relate solely to Warner. In 1948 and 1949 Alpha was based in St Mawes. There was a voyage to Guernsey, Lezadrieux and back to Plymouth. Apparently in 1949 she wintered in the Hamble, and she seems to have been based there until 1952, when the log entries cease. During that period she cruised the south coast of England and the north coast of France. Neil MacFadyen says that during that period, his family used Alpha for a summer holiday a year, cruising as far afield as the Scillies and bits of Brittany and Normandy. The behaviour of the bowsprit, according to Neil MacFadyen, caused consternation on more than one occasion.
David Warner and Eric MacFadyen owned Alpha until at least 1957
David Warner and Eric MacFadyen owned Alpha until at least 1957. By 1959 she was owned by P.C. Doyle of Gorleston-on-Sea, Norfolk; no homeport is given. By 1961 Alpha had been acquired by Neil Pettifer and his sister, Pauline. Pettifer appears to have been inspired by Frank Carr’s book “A Yachtsman’s Log”, and he looked at a number of Bristol Channel pilot cutters before plumping for Alpha. Pettifer was a solicitor in Lincolnshire-another legal connection for Alpha. Though the Pettifers were not able to use Alpha as much as they had hoped, the cutter was nonetheless kept in first-class condition.
On one of the occasions that the Pettifer family were sailing Alpha
On one of the occasions that the Pettifer family were sailing Alpha, she is thought to have run aground in the River Orwell after a misjudgement with the tide and did not rise until within two deck planks of the cockpit coaming. That must have been interesting. At some time before 1980 Alpha acquired a square sail, believed to have come from the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Saladin, ex-Maud. But by 1987 she had for some time been laid up at Lowestoft.
On Neil Pettifer’s retirement, he and Pauline decided to retire to Skye. Alpha was sailed to Skye, the long way round, and it was in Scotland that Mike Humphries, who happened to be on holiday in the Hebrides, saw her. Though he admitted to knowing very little at the time about Bristol Channel pilot cutters, the green canvas deck cover and the dour Scottish winter’s day could not conceal Alpha’s romance, beauty and spirit.
So he bought her, but before he had taken delivery
So he bought her, but before he had taken delivery, dream became the stuff of nightmare as she fell away from the quay, staving in her port side. Choosing to go ahead and buy her, Mike had Alpha on the slip at Corpach, Fort William for a major refit. Out went most of her interior joinery and all the original concrete ballast. On the port side, 24 frames were replaced, along with the beam shelf and bilge stringers. A new deck and bulwarks all round were also installed. Alpha had been a yacht for a good 70 years, and at some stage during this time a skylight had been added forward of the cockpit; Mike decided to do away with this unoriginal feature. As part of the refit, extra berths were put in for skipper and mate. The boat was henceforth to be used for chartering.
Come the relaunch, Alpha was less than enthusiastic to take to water
Come the relaunch, Alpha was less than enthusiastic to take to water, and a party of onlookers was put to use standing at the bows. The trick worked, and Alpha floated off. Her first charter was in March 1992, a cruise from Bristol to Craobhaven, near Oban. In 1992 the stainless steel rigging was renewed, and in 1998 a new mast was stepped. Though the pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel were rigged so they could, supposedly, be sailed comfortably in all conditions with a crew of two, Alpha, fully rigged, carries five sails, making plenty of work for a crew of six willing amateurs of mixed ability and sailing experience. Michael Humphries says she is ideal for the chartering work for which she was used for the eleven years to 2003 (with one fallow year). The arrival of a new crew every Saturday for the start of the next six-day cruise was anticipated with curiosity touched by anxiety.
Michael cannot recall a single cruise
Michael cannot recall a single cruise with a wholly incompetent crew, but he does have fond memories of a group who charmingly dubbed themselves “The Incomepetents”, and they added a new command to the nautical lexicon.
No other crew had such a comprehensive inability to remember, from one hour to the next, how to coil down a halyard, hang a coil on a belaying pin, or make fast a sheet. One of their number was known as Nigel, and they were keen to learn nautical language in order at approximate moments to shout “ Ready about”, “ Helm’s a-lee”, or “Stand by to gybe”, invariably followed by an “Excuse me, Nigel” as the tiller embedded itself in Nigel’s soft midriff, unfailingly to be found in the least convenient position. From then on, Alpha had a unique sea expression: “ Stand by for an excuse-me-Nigel”.
What Michael remembers most about his ownership
What Michael remembers most about his ownership of Alpha is the sheer enjoyment that she has gicen to nearly 1,000 people, many of whom had never set foot aboard a sailing ship before. Theirs were true experiences of a lifetime: the thrill and adrenalin of a powerful gaff rigger shouldering a heavy sea in the North Channels; a starlit might at anchor in a remote loch in the Western Isles; a school of dolphins riding the bow wave on crossing the Minch; or a minkie whale breeching off the west coast of Jura.
Alpha’s last charter cruise, in August 2003, was to Skye and the Small Isles, after which she remained at Gloucester Docks.
But in December 2004 the cutter was sold to Willem Scholtes of the Hague, who had a stormy adventure bringing her back to Holland. In the next article, Willem tells of how he came to own this fine pilot cutter, and what he plans to do with her.
Bron: Tim Pratt en BCPCOA.