When used in a nautical sense, a cutter is:
- a small single-masted vessel, fore-and-aft rigged, with two or more headsails, often a bowsprit, and a mast set farther back than in a sloop
- a ship's boat, powered by oars, sails or motor, used to carry passengers or light stores
- a small or medium sized vessel used by various marine or naval services such as the U.S. Coast Guard, or harbour service to carry a harbour pilot.
Traditionally the sloop rig was a rig with a single mast located forward of 70% of the length of the sailplan. In this traditional definition a sloop could have multiple jibs on a fixed bowsprit.
Cutters had a rig with a single mast more centrally located, which could vary from 50% to 70% of the length of the sailplan, with multiple headsails and a running bowsprit. A mast located aft of 50% would be considered a mast aft rig.
Somewhere in the 1950s or 1960s there was a shift in these definitions such that a sloop only flew one headsail and a cutter had multiple headsails and mast position became irrelevant. In this modern idiom, a cutter is a sailing vessel with more than one head sail and one mast. Cutters carry a staysail directly in front of the mast, set from the forestay. A traditional vessel would also normally have a bowsprit to carry one or more jibs from its end via jibstay(s) on travelers (to preserve the ability to reef the bowsprit). In modern vessels the jib may be set from a permanent stay fixed to the end of a fixed (non-reeving) bowsprit, or directly to the stem fitting of the bow itself. In these cases, that may be referred to as the forestay, and the inner one, which will be less permanent in terms of keeping the mast up, may be called the stays'l stay. A sloop carries only one head sail, called either the foresail or jib.
The open cutter carried aboard naval vessels in the 18th Century was rowed by pairs of men sitting side-by-side on benches. The cutter, with its transom, was broader in proportion compared to the longboat, which had finer lines.
The Watermen of London used similar boats in the 18th Century often decorated as depicted in historical prints and pictures of the River Thames in the 17th & 18th Centuries. The modern Waterman’s Cutter is based on drawings of these boats. They are 34 feet (10 m) long with a beam of 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m) They can have up to six oarsmen either rowing or sculling and can carry a cox and passengers. The organisers of the Great River Race developed the modern version in the 1980s and now many of the fleet of 24 compete annually in this "Marathon of the River". Watermen’s Cutters also compete annually in the Port of London Challenge, and the Port Admirals’ Challenge. Cutter races are also to be found at various town rowing and skiffing regattas. In addition the cutters perform the role of ceremonial Livery Barges with the canopies and armorial flags flying on special occasions.
Cutters have been used for record-breaking attempts and crews have achieved record times for sculling the English Channel (2hrs 42mins) in 1996 and for sculling non-stop from London to Paris (4days 15minutes) in 1999.
A pulling cutter was a boat carried by sailing ships for work in fairly sheltered water in which load-carrying capacity was needed, for example in laying a kedge. This operation was the placing of a relatively light anchor at a distance from the ship so as to be able to haul her off in its direction. The oars were double-banked. That is, there were two oarsmen on each thwart. In a seaway, the longboat was preferred to the cutter as the finer lines of the stern of the former meant that it was less likely to broach to in a following sea. In the Royal Navy the cutters were replaced by 25 and 32-foot (9.8 m) motor cutters. However, the cutters' traditional work had grown beyond the capacity of a boat as ships became larger. Though primarily a pulling boat, this cutter could also be rigged for sailing.
As most early pilots were local fisherman who undertook both jobs, although licensed by the harbour to operate within their jurisdiction, pilots were generally self-employed, and the quickest transport meant greater income. As their fishing boats were heavy working boats, and filled with fishing equipment, they hence needed a new type of boat.
Early boats were developed from single masted fishing cutter designs and twin masted yawls, and latterly into the specialist pilot cutter. These were effectively light-weight and over powered single masted boats with large steeply angled keels, making them deep draft under power and shallow draft in lighter sail.
If legend is to believed the first official Bristol Channel pilot was barge master George James Ray, appointed by the Corporation of Bristol in May 1497 to pilot John Cabot's Matthew from Bristol harbour to the open sea beyond the Bristol channel. In 1837 Pilot George Ray guided Brunel's SS Great Western, and in 1844 William Ray piloted the larger SS Great Britain on her maiden voyage.
The term cutter is also used for any seaworthy vessel used in the law enforcement duties of Great Britain's HM Customs and Excise, the United States Coast Guard (Revenue Cutter Service) or the customs services of other countries.
In America, customs cutters were commonly schooners or brigs. In Britain, they were usually rigged as defined under Sailing (above). The British Board of Customs also used other vessels as hulks, which were moored in places such as tidal creeks. Customs officers worked from the hulks in smaller boats.
In the UK, the UK Border Agency (successor to HM Customs and Excise) currently operates a fleet of 42 m Corvette-type vessels throughout UK territorial waters as border cutters, inspecting vessels for illicit cargoes.
- Kemp, Peter, ed (1976). The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 221–222. "a small, decked ship with one mast and bowsprit, with a gaff mainsail on a boom, a square yard and topsail, and two jibs or a jib and a staysail."
- "U.S. Coast Guard History: Frequently Asked Questions: What is a Cutter?". U.S. Coast Guard. 2008-12-09. http://www.uscg.mil/History/FAQS/Designations.asp. Retrieved 2009-04-10.
- Thames Traditional Rowing Association
- Guinness World Records
- "History of Pilot Cutters". Annabel J. http://www.annabel-j.co.uk/history.htm. Retrieved 2009-06-04.
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