The origin of the cutter can be traced back to the British in the second quarter of the 18th century. Howard Chapelle says in The Search for Speed Under Sail, "The English cutter must have been developed before 1727, since a picture of a cutter rigged vessel at Harwich bears that date." The cutter evolved from the bezaan jacht which was a small shallow drafted vessel with a single mast, a gaff rig with a triangular staysail and a long bowsprit from which a jib could be set forward from the staysail. Due to its extremely shallow draught to allow its use in shoal waters, the bezaan jacht had leeboards, devices attached to each side which could be swung down like an external keel to prevent excessive leeway when sailing on the wind. In England, where waters were not so shallow as in Holland, the design was copied and given a deeper draught to allow the elimination of the leeboards. The hull was also widened to provide better stability in the heavy seas of the English Channel. The description, cutter, originally applied to a hull form closely associated with Folkstone in Southeastern Kent near Dover, where the design probably originated while the rigging was still the same as the bezaan jacht. The original characteristic of the cutter was its light clinker-built hull. Later vessels were of carvel construction or clinker-built up to the lower wales and carvel above. Clinker-built means the hull planks overlapped each other. Carvel construction means the joint was smooth. Wales were the thick timbers which went around the ship at the line of each deck. They were used to provide a secure anchorage for the heavy bolts that supported the deck. The lower wales would be just above the waterline. A few years later, a square sail was added above the gaff-mainsail to provide more speed and an additional jib was rigged from the bowsprit.
Although the cutter somewhat resembled the sloop, it could be easily identified. The cutter had a length to width ratio of about 2.5:1 where a sloop was more ship-like with a ratio of about 3.5:1. The cutter had finer lines than a sloop and carried less freeboard which allowed a larger press of sail. But it was the cutter's rig that allowed it to be clearly differentiated from a sloop. The cutter had an integrated topmast and a separate topgallant mast whereas the sloop had separate topmasts. The sloop also had a steeply angled fixed bowsprit on the centerline where the cutter had an almost horizontal bowsprit to one side of the stemhead which could be housed inboard. The cutter's lower mast was also taller in proportion to its overall height which allowed for a larger gaff main sail. The sloop usually only had one jib whereas the cutter usually had two or more. And finally, the sloop, particularly the Bermuda sloop, had a bigger rake on her mast where the cutter's mast was more vertical. What does all this mean? The cutter was built for speed.
These new Folkstone cutters were a favorite of smugglers almost as soon as they were created because of their speed, agility, and reduced crew requirement and by the mid 1740s the term "smuggling cutter" was well in use. Smuggling cutters were becoming so prevalent that the British government adopted cutters for service in the Customs Services on anti-smuggling duties in 1744 and forbade any commercial cutters to carry a rig as tall as those on the revenue vessels. This was done to prevent smugglers from being able to escape inspection. Cutters served so well in their customs duties that in 1745, the British Admiralty hired "Folkstone Cutters" for use as inshore scouts, costal cruisers, and dispatch vessels. Hired cutters were eventually supplemented by purchased vessels in 1762 and by October 1764 there were thirty-eight cutters on the Navy Lists.
The earliest hired cutters in the Customs service had a crew of about thirty and carried six to eight guns and some swivels. One of the first of the purchased vessels brought into naval service was the Fly, purchased in 1763. She was 52 feet long, 21 feet wide, had a draught of 8 feet, and weighed only 79 tons. She carried 12 guns, probably three-pounders, and was fitted with eight sweep ports per side. Also in 1763, the British navy started to design its own cutters. Four were built in the Plymouth dockyards and three were built by contract in Folkstone and Broadstairs dockyards. All were between 48 to 55 feet in length, around 75 to 85 tons, and carried four to six guns.
Meanwhile, the qualities that endeared the cutter to smugglers and the navy had not escaped notice in foreign ports. In 1747, the Amsterdam Admiralty had ordered two cutters to be purchased in England and had contracted two more to be constructed in Holland. In 1756, a boat-builder in Dunkirk put together a small clinker-built cutter as a coastguard vessel. Named the Tiercelet, not much is known about her except that she carried 6 four-pounders. The French navy did not decide to utilize the cutter design until 1770 when eight cutters were ordered to be constructed at Dunkirk and Bordeaux. One, La Puce, was representative of the other seven. She was 48 feet in length, 19 feet in width, had a draught of 7 feet, and weighed 67 tons. She carried 6 three-pounders, ten swivels, and was equipped with nine sweep ports per side. Chapman, the great Swedish naval architect, took notice and designed a slightly larger version of the British cutter, the Fly, and included the drawings in his Architectura Navalis Mercatoria in 1765.
For some unknown reason, naval personnel throughout history have never been satisfied with small. This was true in the latter half of the 18th century as well. The British naval cutters of the 1770s reached 70 feet in length and around 180 tons. They carried 12 four-pounders and were strong enough to be rated by the navy as sloops of war for a period. Sadly the sails and rigging of a single masted vessel of this size were extraordinarily difficult to manage. Fortunately the British naval designers came to their senses and went back to what was working well. It was the French this time that took things even further. In 1779 they built the Leverette. She was 86 feet long, 30 feet wide, had a draught of 9 feet, and weighed 300 tons. She carried 18 six-pounders plus swivels. The captains of these gargantuan cutters complained so loudly to their superiors the class was abandoned in 1781. The Dutch won the prize, however, for the largest cutter design known to exist. In the Scheepvarrt Museum in Amsterdam are two sets of plans for cutters 92 feet long, 30 feet wide, having a draught of 12 feet, and weighing 400 tons. They were designed by J. Vlaming to carry 24 six-pounders. It is not known if either of these behemoths was ever built.
Strategy and Use
Fast, agile, and relatively well armed for its size, the cutter is a warship through and through. Because of their abilities, cutters are restricted for military use. Naturally, this regulation only stops those who follow regulations. Smugglers and pirates love cutters as more combat-capable versions of sloops. The navy loves cutters as pirate hunters and fast messengers and transports, and the coast guard uses cutters for coastal patrol, and anti-smuggling.
Merchant captains typically find little use for cutters, as sloops are generally just as fast, and the shallower draft of the lighter sloops and schooners allow them to save more time by taking shallow-water shortcuts. However, a captain who is familiar with a sloop will have no trouble handling a cutter, and there may be times or runs that are better suited to the heavier armor and armament the cutter offers.
Like a piranha, the cutter has a disproportionately large bite. This, combined with its speed and agility make it a vessel exceptionally suited for its purpose - hunting down evil-doers, or being one.
Navy or pirate, a cutter will be able to overpower sloops and schooners with ease. With up to twelve guns and near one hundred crewmen, a cutter even poses a threat to larger merchant vessels, like ketches and flutes.
The main problem a cutter captain faces is in catching his smaller quarry. Most of the weaker targets will also have a fore-and-aft rig, meaning that they'll be able to point just as high up into the wind. Speed and maneuverability will be very close, and what's more, the smaller vessels have the chance to escape over the shallows where the deeper draft of the cutter cannot follow. All these factors mean that the cutter captain needs cunning and patience to catch the smaller prey. A wise cutter captain will become intimately familiar with the coves and shoals of an island in order to find an ambush that will cut off his quarry from retreat.
The cutter is in the enviable position of being able to outrun almost anything that could beat it in a fight - one of the main reasons why this type of vessel is restricted for military use. Like all vessels, though, the cutter does have its limitations. With a short hull and large sail area, the cutter can achieve impressive speeds in light winds, and its deep draft gives it such a grip on the water that it can make good headway even in a choppy sea. But like all small vessels, even the seaworthy cutter will have difficulties in rough weather.
All in all, the cutter is a light warship, but a warship all the same. Smugglers and naval officers alike should never underestimate the power and tenacity of a cutter, especially one in the command of a talented captain.
Other variants of the Mediator:
- 'Mediator' Cutter (Civilian)
- 'Mediator' Cutter (Fallback)
- 'Mediator' Heavy Cutter
- 'Mediator' Mastercraft Cutter
- 'Lancer' Naval Cutter
Captains who enjoy the sailing characteristics of the cutter, and who would accept a lighter armament in order to gain a shallower draft should consider a sloop. The cutter is the most powerful form of the single-masted vessel, so captains looking for more guns must investigate significantly different rigs.
- Lighter armed, but the most similar fore-and-aft rig would be a large schooner.
- More heavily armed, and sporting a three-masted fore-and-aft rig is the xebec - another vessel favored by the nefarious.
- More heavily armed and armored, brigs-of-war are a step up in size and power, but their square-rigged sail plan would be a dramatic change for those used to the flexible cutter rig.
- Single-masted, with a predominantly fore-and-aft rig, but with a square topsail and course.
- Fore-and-aft rig allows it to sail closer to the wind than a square rig.
- Deep draft for such a small vessel.
- Heavily armed for a vessel of its size.
- Restricted for military use only