Cutter may refer to several types of nautical vessels:
- In frequent modern usage, a cutter is a small- or medium-sized vessel whose occupants exercise official authority. Examples are harbor pilots' cutters and cutters of the U.S. Coast Guard or UK Border Agency.
- As traditionally used in the context of sailing vessels, a cutter is a small single-masted boat, fore-and-aft rigged, with two or more headsails and often a bowsprit. The cutter's mast may be set farther back than on a sloop.
- Cutter also sometimes refers to a small boat serving a larger boat, to ferry passengers or light stores between larger boats and the shore. This type of cutter may be powered by oars, sails or a motor.
The cutter is one of several types of sailboats. 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 cutter rig, especially a gaff rig version where the sails aft the mast were divided between a mainsail below the gaff and a topsail above, was useful for sailing with small crews as the total sail area was divided into smaller individual sails. These could be managed without the need for large crews, winches, or complex tackles, making the cutter especially suitable for pilot, customs and coast guard duties. For example, a pilot cutter may only have two people on board for its outward trip—the pilot to be delivered to a ship and an assistant who had to sail the cutter back to port single-handed. The cutter sailing rig became so ubiquitous for these tasks that the modern-day motorised vessels now engaged in these duties are known as 'cutters'.
Cutters were widely used by several navies in the 17th and 18th centuries and were usually the smallest commissioned ships in the fleet. As with cutters in general they were distinguished by their large fore-aft sail plans with multiple headsails, usually carried on a very long bowsprit, which was sometimes as long as half the length of the boat's hull. The rig gave the cutter excellent maneuverability and they were much better at sailing to windward than a larger square rigged ship. Larger naval cutters often had the ability to hoist two or three square-rigged sails from their mast to improve their downwind sailing performance as well. Navies used cutters for coastal patrol, customs duties, escort, carrying personnel and dispatches and for small 'cutting out' raids. As befitted their size and intended role naval cutters were lightly armed, often with between six and twelve small cannon (or carronades in the Royal Navy).
In the rating system of the Royal Navy 'cutter' was the lowest classification, coming below the sloop-of-war as an 'unrated' vessel. Whilst the classification included true sailing cutters the rating was given to any ship of suitable size and/or importance. Under the system a 'cutter' was commanded by a lieutenant who would be the only commissioned officer on board. HMS Bounty was classed as a cutter under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh despite being a true ship with three square rigged masts.
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.
- Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter
- United States Coast Guard Cutter
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- "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.
- 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."
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