Pellew is the largest Falmouth pilot cutter launched in Britain for more than 150 years, but represents something even greater, as James Stewart discovers
The upper reaches of the River Truro are not an obvious source of sailing innovation. No foiling cats fly over its shallows as at nearby Carrick Roads. The high-tech superyachts of Falmouth’s Pendennis yard are unlikely to appear anytime soon. Yet it’s here, among light-industrial units and auto-mechanics playing Radio 2, between a metal scrapyard and gas storage tanks, that one of the most interesting recent launches in British sailing has emerged, a Falmouth pilot cutter named Pellew.
In February 2020 the 68ft hull of the Pellew was lowered into the river from the Rhoda Mary Shipyard. When I visit a year on from that momentous day – the culmination of over four years’ work and goodness knows how many more planning – the frame of a similar 19th-century cutter stands on the hard mid-restoration.
“She’ll cost her owner a million quid to restore,” Luke Powell says. “But there’s no logic to wooden boats. Building one is just cavalier and mad, a romantic idea that it’s something worth doing.”
Grasp that and you’re halfway to understanding why Powell built Pellew, the largest Falmouth pilot cutter launched in Britain for more than 150 years. With 2020 lost, she begins her maiden charter season this summer.
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Perhaps only Powell would have had the nerve for such a project. Through his company Working Sail, managed by his wife Joanna, he has not only designed and built eight Scilly pilot cutters since 1993, but has also helped rehabilitate a genre of seakindly working craft that had been left to rot following the arrival of glassfibre. His largest previous cutter was Agnes, a pretty 46-footer currently sailing charters.
Workhorse of the seas: The pilot cutter
In their day, Falmouth pilot cutters upped the ante. Larger and faster than their rival boats of the Scilly fleet, they evolved into cracking coastal workboats. Tough enough to look after crews as they bludgeoned into heavy oceanic swells west of the Scilly Isles yet easily driven in light airs; and able to race to windward to meet inbound ships yet manageable short-handed by just two crew.
Imagine a Land Rover of the late-1800s and you’re close. An obvious choice, then, when Powell looked to scale up.
For all that, Pellew represents a game-changer. She is a third longer than Agnes, with three times the displacement at 74 tonnes. Her 14in keel, frames and scantlings are of Lincolnshire oak fastened in bronze. A 9-tonne external lead keel supplements 14 tonnes of internal ballast (a neat trick that boosts internal volume).
North Sea Sails in Tollesbury, Essex, produced her vast 3,500ft2 of canvas flown over five sails. The 60ft spars are of Devonian Douglas fir – it took the driver of their low-loader two days to navigate a route to Truro.
Without a surviving Falmouth pilot cutter as a template for his replica, Powell worked from a 1:12 half-model plus contemporary photos of an 1855 boat called the Vincent that worked out of St Mawes (the name is from Admiral Edward Pellew, the son of a St Mawes packet-ship captain who became a hero of the Napoleonic wars, noted for his skill and humane treatment of prisoners). And despite her larger size, Powell produced her lines as he always did – on paper.
While eschewing CAD design sounds almost wilfully traditional, it’s Powell’s secret to fine-tuning a design. He explains: “You get more deeply involved in it [on paper] – you see the faults, the kinks in the line whereas on a computer it always looks good. You can’t look into the depths of a design if it’s too easy to make.”
Initial drawings usually take him a month. “Then I’ll leave it for a month to see it with fresh eyes. It’s absolutely like painting.”
Like painting, Powell believes that, certain parameters aside, 98% of good design comes down to aesthetics. “There’s no point building a boat that is not pretty. You have to fall in love with it.”
Most of us can relate to that.
There’s no logic to the allure of wooden boats. Or at least none beyond their elegant lines, perhaps a second sense that on such craft form follows function. One look at those old pilot cutters and you feel that there is a boat to keep you safe in a blow.
As Yachting World’s Tom Cunliffe puts it in the forward to Powell’s terrific book Working Sail: ‘Luke Powell’s boats stand out in any seascape as the loveliest of all. His eye is extraordinary, but it never compromises the critical factor of how the boat swims on the water.’
A quiet radical
Coming aboard Pellew in Falmouth’s Penryn river, although she’s almost from-the-wrapper new, her spars and blocks still as shiny as conkers, she appears timeless.
Her off-black hull has a workmanlike heft to make the surrounding fibreglass yachts look like yoghurt pots, swooping rakishly from overhang to 23ft bowsprit. The only concession to modernity on deck is a doghouse over the main companionway to shelter charter crew.
Below decks, however, the old pilots would splutter into their pipes. Aft of a fo’c’sle with abundant stowage and a pipecot is a guest cabin with eight bunks stacked four a side, plus a spacious heads with a shower. A snug three-berth crew quarters with a separate heads and nav area are aft of the companionway.
Taking advantage of the full 18ft beam at the centre is a surprisingly modern living space. To starboard is a longitudinal galley with an electric hob and oven, and (what luxury!) a dishwasher.
To port is a pilot berth and heads, plus a dining table that seats 12 – the social heart of the boat which seems purpose-designed for yarning.
Powell lights up as we clamber below. “I love being aboard,” he says with a grin. “This feels like home. It’s the boat that I always should’ve built.”
Powell is one of life’s enthusiasts: garrulous, as romantic as he is practical when it comes to wooden boats, almost boyishly enthusiastic. He’s also as quietly radical as you’d hope of a man who, aged nine, sailed to Greece with artist parents on a 40ft fishing boat; Leonard Cohen became a family friend during their stay in Hydra.
Powell came back to England after a decade to learn his trade restoring Thames barges in Faversham, Kent. Aged 21 he returned to Greece, where a near-derelict pilot cutter caught his eye.
By then a jobbing nautical artist, he produced 50 paintings for her owner in lieu of the £3,000 price tag. It was while sailing in Greece on that boat, surrounded by one of the last wooden working fleets in Europe, that Powell had an epiphany.
“A long continuity of design and boatbuilding just stops in our time. I thought, ‘Is no one going to do something to keep this alive? Are we just going to walk away from hundreds of years of evolution?’” The upshot was Working Sail.
While romance went halfway to understanding the genesis of Pellew, the rest comes down to legacy. In the heyday of pilot cutters, before boat design became the preserve of naval architects with letters after their names, any backwater boatbuilder could’ve knocked you up a respectable wooden boat. It was just part of the trade, a knowledge passed down and refined over generations, founded on designs that had proven themselves on the water.
With a twinkle Powell says he is in “the peasant boatbuilding line”. He tells me of a letter he received from an established naval architect after launching Working Sail: “He wrote: ‘How dare you design boats! We have been educated to do this.’ When you think about it, there are a million different shapes to boats and they all work. I learned like the old builders did, by trial and error.”
So, he insists that Working Sail is nothing special. “We’re just the last people doing this.”
Then Powell’s project got really interesting. After the demise of a project to restore a Cornish merchant schooner for want of funds, a friend and keen barge-sailor, Brian Paine, offered Powell a deal. He would donate £900,000 from the sale of his independent college in Rochester so that Working Sail could build a boat from scratch. (The total cost of Pellew was £1.2m.) There was just one condition – young trainees had to work on the build.
The decision was a no-brainer. “Everything dies if you don’t share the knowledge,” says Powell. “Pellew is about keeping those old skills alive.”
Five young shipwrights in their early 20s were hired to work alongside the experienced three-strong build team. Sam Coltman, 26, was lured from Pendennis to produce the metal fittings.
Everyone at the time realised Pellew was something special, he tells me as we prepare to sail, loosening the heavy mainsail, shackling halyards to the staysail and jib. These boats matter, he says: “Everything is different about a wooden boat: the movement, the creaks. They feel alive.”
Powell fires up the 125hp John Deere engine deep within Pellew’s guts. The propeller shaft was set almost a metre off-centre to port. A good aesthetic call, but it gave Powell the jitters on his first trial.
“I wasn’t sure beforehand whether we would make it around the first bend in the river [because the shaft was offset] but she performed perfectly. She feels big under power but as soon as the sails go up she’s totally manageable.”
We hoist the main on one of the two not-strictly-authentic hydraulic capstan winches. “Cheating really,” Powell says, but they are there as a concession for a guest crew who will be largely novices.
“We don’t have the same skill set as those sailors of the old days. There’s no point in making her so authentic she’ll be dangerous.” He anticipates the winches will come in handy for gybes in a blow.
No chance of that for us coming out of Falmouth harbour. All sails flying – including the topsail for the first time – we make a respectable three knots towards the St Anthony Head lighthouse in a Force 3.
A mile offshore the wind fills to a southerly Force 5, tearing rags of foam from the waves. Pellew squares her shoulders and leans into the blue-black seas as the numbers climb on the log: 6 knots, 7.1, 7.5, 8 knots. “Hey! We’re really going!” Powell yells at the tiller. In a Force 7 she’ll “do 10 knots, easy”.
The topsail and flying jib come down as the topmast begins to flex. The gaff cutter was the ultimate rig of its era: flexible, relatively easy to manage, able to pivot a boat easily around its mast and drive it to windward. The perfect rig for pilot boats, in other words.
We make around 60° off the wind, perhaps a pinch less, racing towards the horizon like the pilots of old, our wake foaming behind like a steadily unfastening zip. Pellew shrugs off the building seas with an easy motion that engenders confidence. It seems a huge pity when we have to turn back.
No museum pieces
Not everyone agrees with Powell’s approach. Some classics societies have argued that replicas devalue the original boats; that the focus should be on preservation not recreation. Back on land he is scathing: “They’d rather there was one boat left that was unique so they could sit around it and polish it.”
Boats are machines, he says. “They have to function. The sea is no kinder to a boat that’s 200 years old. When they take something like the Cutty Sark and become anal about saving the wood it’s pointless. The actual boat is the shape and its fitness for sea, not the material.
“A brand new Cutty Sark would have been much more valuable than that shocking relic now stuck above a glass cafe.”
So, yachts are not just made to go sailing they are – I’d recommend you sit down now, classics owners – also made to be ‘disposable’. That’s quite the statement from someone who has just spent five years building one.
“Boats should be mortal, not so precious you’re frightened of breaking them,” he explains. “If you break one make another! You can do that quite happily if the tradition is still alive, and the only way to ensure it’s still alive is to build not repair, which means new boats and new boatbuilders, which bring in more people, more energy. Get enough and the whole scene snowballs.”
I had assumed Pellew was another replica, albeit a large one. Yet she is in fact one of the most interesting launches in Britain in years. Combine her revival of the Falmouth pilot cutter, her blooding of a new generation of shipwrights and Powell’s refreshing take on a sector that can be somewhat Luddite and Pellew appears to be something more.
I don’t want to sound overly messianic here, but it offers a manifesto for a living classics industry, one based on more than nostalgia, and which should thrill all sailors. Better still, she is a stonking boat.
The long-term goal is to establish Rhoda Mary Shipyard as a hub for traditional boatbuilding: more apprentices (on my visit I met an evangelical 20-year-old who had never set foot in a marina before his traineeship let alone a traditional shipyard), perhaps a forge and a sailmaker. The hope is that Pellew will be the first of the big stuff.
But not for Powell. After five years living and breathing the build, he aims to hand the baton to the next generation. He wants to go sailing. This year he captains Pellew on Cornish and Scottish charters alongside his wife, Joanne, as first mate, a cook and, for longer passages, a trainee. Next year? Perhaps the Azores, maybe Norway or Greece.
“She represents freedom. She’s for going over the horizon. That’s what boats are all about.” Given her MCA Category 0 rating, those horizons are limitless.
So what happens if Powell is commissioned to create the first 110ft Cornish merchant schooner of the modern era? He thinks. Then with a smile: “I suppose I’d have to say yes, wouldn’t I.”
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