Cutter (ship)

When used in a nautical sense, a cutter is:

  1. a small single-masted vessel, fore-and-aft rigged, with two or more headsails, a bowsprit, and a mast set further back than in a sloop
  2. a ship's boat, powered by oars, sails or motor, used to carry passengers or light stores
  3. a small or medium sized armed vessel used by various marine or naval services such as the U.S. Coast Guard.


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 reeving 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, then, a cutter is a sailing vessel with more than one head sail and one mast. In a traditional vessel there would normally be also, a bowsprit to carry a jib set flying from the bowsprit end via a traveller (to preserve the ability to reef the bowsprit), while in modern vessels the jib is set from a topmast forestay permanently fixed to the end of a fixed (non-reeving) bowsprit, or directly to the stem fitting of the bow itself. (The sloop carries only one head sail, properly called a foresail though nowadays usually called a jib.) Correctly speaking, a jib is set on the topmast forestay.

The term is English in origin and refers to a specific type of vessel, namely, "a small, decked ship with one mast and bowsprit, traditionally with a gaff mainsail, though not invariably so. The foot of the mainsail would normally be laced to a boom and the head to a gaff above which a gaff topsail would be set in suitable conditions. There would also be a foresail and jib and possibly a flying jib set above the 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 long with a beam of 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 1980’s 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 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 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 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.
Concerning the use of a kedge, see also:

Customs Services

Historically, a cutter is any seaworthy vessel used in the law enforcement duties of Great Britain's HM Customs and Excise, the United States Department of the Treasury's 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, Customs currently operate a fleet of 42 m Corvette-type vessels throughout UK territorial waters as customs cutters, inspecting vessels for illicit cargoes.

United States Coast Guard

After a merger in 1915, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service became the United States Coast Guard, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Today the Coast Guard officially uses the term cutter for any vessel which has a permanently assigned crew and accommodations for the extended support of that crew, although informally this is held to mean any vessel of or more in length.

Larger cutters, over 180 feet (55 m) in length, are under control of area commands (Atlantic area or Pacific area). Cutters at or under in length come under control of district commands. Cutters usually have a motor surf boat and/or a rigid hull inflatable boat on board. Polar Class icebreakers also carry an Arctic survey boat (ASB) and landing craft.


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