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A pilot cutter is a boat used to transport harbor pilots from the mainland or other base of operations to larger, usually ocean-going ships, for the purpose of piloting the larger ship through waters that may be dangerous or tricky to navigate. These pilots are almost always local and have experience and more knowledge of local waters than the larger ship's normal pilot or captain. Pilot cutters have evolved over the centuries from small, very fast sailing ships to modern, motorized launches.
As sailing ships became larger, a need for harbor pilots with specialized knowledge of local waters became apparent in many ports. Most pilots, even as early as the 16th century, were licensed to operate by local jurisdictions. These pilots were usually fishermen and were generally not employed by local governments but operated on a freelance, for-hire basis. This meant that speed was important both to the pilot, who could make more money by piloting more ships, and for the captains of the ships, who were understandably eager to get to port.
The desire for speed led to the development of the classic pilot cutter. These sailing ships were small and very fast, with a great deal of sail area for the size of the ship. Most pilot cutters were single-masted, although some carried two masts. They generally had very deep drafts, and their hulls were constructed with a narrow, V-shaped cross-section designed to maximize speed. They could carry small amounts of cargo and a few passengers and were sometimes used to shuttle messages or valuables to and from larger ships.
As technology advanced, pilot cutters changed with the times. When ships transitioned to steam power, however, most pilot cutters remained sail-powered, as any vessel powered by steam required time to get underway and were probably much larger than a typical pilot cutter. With a good wind, a pilot cutter could usually get the pilot to his destination before a steam powered launch had even left shore.
In modern times, the term pilot cutter usually refers to motorized vessels that ferry pilots to larger ships. The design of these boats can vary widely, from small, fast launches to somewhat larger boats that are capable of carrying small numbers of passengers or light cargo. In some areas of the world, sail-powered pilot cutters can still be found, but these are becoming increasingly rare.