Pilot Boats of Waterford Port

A recent announcement that the Port of Waterford had commissioned a new pilot boat to be called the Portlairge II prompted a flurry of communication to me asking for details and some of the history of the pilots.  So this months blog is a journey from 1816 to the present looking at some of the piloting in the harbour and in particular those vessels that held the title of pilot boat

Waterford Harbour Commissioners were established in 1816, which included pilotage as a central function.  Captain Thomas Hunt was appointed Pilot Master by Trinity House and Benjamin Conn was appointed his deputy.  On the 1 November 1816 Conn brought 19 men who had been appointed as the first pilots to the offices in town to receive their instructions.  Not long after another 11 men were appointed.[i] 

One of the earliest images I have of a pilot boat operating at Dunmore East, this is the Seagull. The longest serving craft on the station that i am aware of. Image courtesy of Richard Woodley.

My understanding of the pilots function really only comes from a modern perspective and so I won’t pretend to know for sure.  But the pilots were charged with replacing the Hobblers who had operated in the harbour, possibly for several centuries.[ii]  Ships entering port would signal by flag in daylight or by lantern at night.  Dunmore was the outer pilot station with Passage as an inner station.  A third boat is mentioned in the early years, but I don’t know if this was in the city, Cheekpoint or a relief boat.  In the early years many ships only required pilotage to Passage where they anchored and were emptied by lighters.  Others proceeded up to the city, or to Cheekpoint where a New Ross pilot took charge.  Pilots were obviously required for the outward journeys too.

The first mention I could find of a pilot boat was 1824 when the Scott answered a distress signal  from the steam packet Ivanhoe.  The pilot boat was joined by the revenue cruiser Hound, both of which were based at Dunmore where, it would seem, the Ivanhoe was bound with mails.[iii] Elsewhere in 1824 I found mention of a pilot boat called Caroline. There was also a sad account of a young Passage lad named Hearne who was lost off another pilot boat Sarah.[iv]

A modern scene in rough weather gives a sense of the difficulties faced by pilots and pilot masters in day of sail, as well as days of power driven vessels. An Arklow boat coming in the harbour with Loftus Hall in the background on the Hook Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Brendan Grogan

In 1826 both the Scott and the Caroline are mentioned in the one report. They have spoken with Roger Stewart and brig Wellington, Eliza and Ann and the brig Agenoria and have reported back on the port of departure, port of destination, master, cargo and the number of days at sea.[v] Although such a procedure might seem silly to us now, in those days of sail with little by way of communication, such details were vital elements of passing along intelligence to sailors families, the ship owners and the merchants with an interest in the cargo. Such intelligence was passed along to ships agents, nautical publications such as Lloyds List etc.

Normal day at the office! Photo courtesy of Brendan Grogan

According to the accounts of the commissioners in 1830 the income from pilotage amounted to Inbound – £1, 775 13 10 and Outbound – 1,577 3 10.  Various costs are mentioned in terms of pilotage incl timber, cordage and sails etc for several pilot boats, cost of two six oared yawls for the pilot establishment £53 18 3, the rent of the ballast office and watch houses at Passage and Dunmore, subsidence of pilots and assistants on board the pilot boats and the salaries of Pilot Master, Deputy Pilot Master and Acting Deputy Pilot Master.  There was also the wages of 39 pilots, 10 assistants and of extra pilots occasionally employed.  Just as an interesting aside for the die hards of harbour history, there was also a substantial sum mentioned in excess of  £4k for the widening of the of the channels of the upper and lower Ford to 210 feet wide, 7 feet deep at low water on ordinary spring tides.[vi]

In Late November 1830 the pilot boat Enterprise of Dunmore went to try assist the schooner Unity of New Ross, Andrew Power, master.  She was laden with coal for her home port and got into difficulties to the west of Dunmore, the Enterprise tried to come alongside and failing this encouraged the crew to make more sail in an effort to get her off the shore, but she grounded at Black Nobb and although four of the crew were lost, one was rescued from the shore.[vii]

A more modern approach to boat outhaul and maintanence, the Maritana ex Catherine Downey being hauled out at Waterford. Photo courtesy of Tomas Sullivan, includes the late Lenny Neill

At the August meeting of the Harbour Commissioners in 1842 a wide ranging discussion took place into the pilots and in particular the current pilot boats on station.  Three vessels were named:

  • Dart – a small, good weather boat, but of limited use in storms. 
  • Enterprise is described as a vessel “…whose decks were so split by the sun, that the men were continually wet when between decks, by the spray.”
  • Scott – suggested that she be temporarily repaired and sent down to replace the Enterprise

The Dart was described as an experiment, which had paid dividends to the port in that she cost less to buy, had increased the number of vessels boarded by pilots to a tune of 25% and this offset any perceived loss due to inability to travel in bad weather.  It was claimed that because she was a novelty there was a prejudice against her.  This prompted a rather barbed comment that “The committee did not rely on the airy statements of casual visitors to bathing places…” for information on their craft.  After a long discussion the decision of the committee was that the Scott and the Enterprise be repaired and the Dart be discontinued, on the understanding that she was a danger to the men who served in her.  As you will see from the advert below, such decisions took time to be realised however.

Waterford Mail – Saturday 07 January 1843; page 3

The early 1850s were a difficult time for one pilot boat in particular.  The Falcon was designed by a Dublin naval architect named Marshall.  Interestingly, when asked if the pilot master (Alcock) had been consulted on the design, this was very quickly brushed aside in a very dismissive way.  It seems the pilots experience was nothing to a man of learning from Dublin.  The plans were agreed and handed over to Mr Albert White, of Whites Shipyard, Ferrybank…and that as they say was only the start of an unholy fiasco. 

For details of where to buy my book Waterford Harbour Tides & Tales, see the following link

According to the late Bill Irish the smack Falcon was built in 1852.  She was 51ft long x 14ft beam  x 9ft draft and was 37tons.[viii]   However a war of words and letters would later break out, the completed Falcon was considered by her proposers as a fine vessel, but the pilots and their employers were less than satisfied in the vessels seaworthiness.  Ultimately it all ended up in court, and as far as I can determine the Falcon never saw service for the Commissioners.  As part of the settlement some of the expense of the project was to be recouped and invested in a new boat from Whites, the Gannet (1856) described as a pilot cutter 58ft x 16ft x 9ft and 40tons burden.[ix]

In 1859 I found the first mention of a vessel that went on to have a sterling career with the pilot service, Seagull.[x]

In 1862 there was a couple of interesting agenda items at the monthly meeting of the harbour commissioners.  Mr William Hogan at Passage brought a complaint about the colocation of a telegraph office in the pilot house at Passage and the inconvenience this might cause to his office.  This was not seen as a major issue by the commissioners however.  I can only suppose that this dates the origins of a telegraph connection from the village?  Meanwhile Board member TC Spencer expressed concern about the costs associated with the running of the pilots, which he stated were running at a loss of £800 PA.  In another interesting aside, a letter was read from a Mr B Dawson, Cork “…with respect of storm signals being erected on the quay for the benefit of shipping, stating the suggestion was made from purely philanthropic motives and that the expense would be only about £14”[xi] I’ve long theorised about some flag based communication or other means within the harbour, I look forward to finding out more about this detail.

In 1863 the pilot boat Gannett was sunk after a collision with the steamer Beta close to the bar above Creaden Head.  The matter was considered to be the fault of the master and crew of the pilot boat and there was an appeal for her replacement as it was felt that with only one boat at Dunmore, piloting would suffer.[xii] 

In 1868 a salvage claim was before the court of admiralty which describes an incident between the brig Cherubin and mentions two pilot boats.  One is The Joseph, described as a decked craft of 27 tons which was used for pilotage although it seems she was merely a relief boat. It appears the regular boat was under repairs, while the Seagull is described as not available as she was up the haven at Passage.

The Seagull had a sometimes a bit part and sometimes a major role in the years after including the loss of five coastguard men at Broomhill in 1869  and the inquiry into the wreck of the Alfred D Snow (1888) but due to space constraints, I will jump to 1913.  At a meeting of the pilot committee of the Harbour Board in 1913 pilots Glody and Kirby of Dunmore East station were called as representatives of the pilots (then numbering a skipper [Pilot Master?] and nine pilots).  A number of issues were raised including pay, conditions and work. The pilots objected to having to man the trawler Uncle Sam even for a few weeks in summer as a substitute while the Seagull was at Waterford being repaired.   The trawler was not sufficiently comfortable, but they had nothing to say against the Seagull, except that they would prefer a motor or steam boat.[xiii] The concern for comfort arose as the pilots lived aboard the vessels for days and sometimes longer as they awaited ships. A tough life, with little comforts, a dry bunk and decent food was surely not much to ask.

An interesting photo via Paul Duffin from Feb 1957, the Dunmore East Lifeboat Annie Blanche Smith brought in to assist his grandfather Jack Donnelly off an outbound Puerto Rican ship MV Menchy in very high seas. For readers with a copy of David Carrolls Dauntless Courage see p 152 for another photo

In April 1933 I found a mention of a pilot cutter named the Elsie J.  She was on station in 1932, as the details given are about running expenses including repairs during that year amounting to £182 1s 11d.  The costs have increased due to the repairs that were carried out.[xiv]  As of now, I can’t determine when she commenced on station however.  In October 1937, an unidentified pilot cutter (possibly the Elsie J) had a lucky escape after a sudden change in wind direction caused the boat to drag the anchor and she was driven towards Councillors Strand.  The pilots aboard had no choice but to man the small punt and escape towards the shore.  Fortunately they landed safely after an “exciting tussle with the huge waves”.  Equally as fortunate, the anchor stuck fast just off the shore, and the cutter was spared[xv].

The Lily Doreen at Dunmore in the emergency era. Photo by Theo Harris

In June 1942 an unnamed pilot cutter “…recently acquired arrived in Waterford from Limerick…  The vessel is in the command of Capt Stubbs, a Waterford native”[xvi]  I am speculating this is the Lily Doreen because when she was sold in 1951 it was mentioned that she was bought second hand from Limerick.  In June 1947 it was reported that the Lily Doreen had been struck by the Milford Haven steam trawler East Coast and that Tyrells of Arklow had estimated the damage to cost £450 to repair.[xvii] 

My neighbour Brigid Power often told me the story of how she would walk up with her mother and siblings to Coolbunnia from the village to watch for her father Capt Andrew Doherty who was pilot master on the Lily Doreen and i would imagine he also served on the Elsie J. When they were at Passage East at night he would signal them with a lantern on the dusk and it was his way of reassuring his family that all was well. To the best of my knowledge the Lily Doreen was replaced in 1951.  She was advertised for sale in December.[xviii] 

Her replacement was still at Dunmore East when I was fishing there in the 1980’s the Betty Breen named after the daughter of then chairman of the Board, Martin S Breen, and Betty also performed the naming of the vessel in October 1951 at Tyrells boatyard in Arklow.  The Betty Breen made her maiden voyage to Waterford shortly afterwards and it was said that her arrival was witnessed by a large crowd.[xix]

The Betty Breen being overhauled. Photo via Brendan Grogan

The Betty Breen had a busy time of it at Dunmore.  Although she played a role in numerous rescues and other events, one of the more interesting I found was the case of the Liverpool pilot which she took from the ship Chriapo, en route from Liverpool to the West Indies for bananas.  Having sailed out the Mersey into a NW gale, he could not be retrieved and so headed for Dunmore and the Betty Breen, and then to Waterford and via train to Rosslare and home.[xx]  At least this pilot had a less eventful trip, than his colleague Philip Barrio at Passage East in 1892. The Betty Breen was advertised for sale in the summer of 1993, her service days were over.[xxi]

A number of vessels have served the pilots since including the Catherine Downey, later Maritana, the Tom Brennan (Jan 1994) the Dun Mhor (2016).  I have no doubt that I have missed a few others as the searching via newspapers has its limitations.  If any reader can add more details I would appreciate it. Undoubtedly the Portlairge II will see many years of loyal service to the harbour. Hopefully it won’t be as eventful as some of her predecessors but either way I look forward to seeing the vessel in operation this coming September.

Portlairge II currently under construction in Youghal, expected to hit the harbour in Sept 2021. Phot courtesy of Capt. Darren Doyle

My thanks to Tomas Sullivan for helping with getting this started, to Darren Doyle at the Port of Waterford, to Brendan Grogan and Paul Duffin for photos.  Needless to say, all errors and omissions are my own.


[i] Mary Breen.  Waterford Port and harbour 1815-1842.  2019.  Four Courts Press. Dublin. p 33

[ii] Andrew Doherty,  Waterford Harbour Tides & Tales.  2020.  The History Press.  Cheltenham. (see chapter 9 Sails Ahoy Hobblers. pp 62-65) 

[iii] Waterford Mail – Saturday 06 November 1824. Page 3

[iv] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 27 October 1824, page 2

[v] Waterford Mail, Saturday 12th August 1826, page 4

[vi] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 17 February 1830; page 1

[vii] Waterford Mail – Saturday 04 December 1830; page 4

[viii] Bill Irish.  Shipbuilding in Waterford 1820-1882.  (2001)  Wordwell Books. Wicklow.  P.240

[ix] Ibid

[x] Waterford Mail – Saturday 13 August 1859; page 3

[xi] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 19 February 1862; page 2

[xii] Waterford Chronicle – Friday 15 January 1864; page 3

[xiii] Munster Express, Saturday, August 23, 1913; Page: 6

[xiv] Waterford Standard – Saturday 08 April 1933; page 7

[xv] Waterford Standard – Saturday 30 October 1937; page 3

[xvi] Munster Express, Friday, June 12, 1942; Page: 3

[xvii] Waterford Standard – Saturday 14 June 1947; page 6

[xviii] Irish Examiner, Thursday, December 06, 1951; Page: 7

[xix] Waterford News and Star, Friday, October 12, 1951; Page: 3

[xx] Irish Examiner, Saturday, January 03, 1959; Page: 7

[xxi] Munster Express, Friday, July 09, 1993; Page: 9

5 Replies to “Pilot Boats of Waterford Port”

  1. Great Andrew, thanks to you I’m Learning more now about Waterford Harbour and enjoying every bit of it. The old bit of research makes it all the more interesting, Cheers!!!

    1. Thanks Bernard, its the older practices that I find the more interesting I must say, especially the days of sail

  2. More superb writings — very informative Andrew. The harbour must have been ever so busy back in those bygone days, always something going on up and down.

    1. Dozens of ships on one tide at times Kev, many heading to New Ross also which I didn’t really get into. Lots of stress and strain in relation to that, a story for another time

      1. I noticed the absence of Ross traffic being mentioned on the Waterford Harbour super seaway and I thought exactly what you had mentioned.
        Too much to handle in one go as you say – The Three Rivers system was not for messing about on, the tides and mud banks were some challenge.

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