Romancing the Carlotta - West Wind Hardwood

In Italian, the meaning of the name Carlotta is an Italian form of Charles, meaning strong.

And indeed strength has followed Carlotta since her conception in 1899. She’s shown strength through her 118 years; there was “a daring World War II escape from Guernsey as the Germans were landing at the airport. She’d been laid over by hurricane force winds until the mast trucks were almost hitting the water…dropped four feet from a travel lift, towed by rowboat completely around Texada Island…in the 1970s she fell over on her beaching legs, smashing her port side frames in.”

Carlotta has also required the strength of her owners. More recently The Mohan’s who found pleasure and passion for 10 years, were ushered into personal heartbreak and tragedy leading to her to her most recent sale in 2014. The newest owners continued her restoration and contacted Abernethy Gaudin Boatbuilders in Brentwood Bay (Vancouver Island) British Columbia, Canada.

Rob Abernethy and Jean Gaudin of Abernethy Gaudin Boatbuilders (A&G) undertook the restoration, the challenge, the pleasure. I spoke with Jean, and he said that this was a labour of love for both Rob and himself. To associate oneself with Carlotta -— such a grand dame — was beyond words and the fulfillment of their mutual dreams.

Lars – partner to Jan (brother) — visited her at A&G Boatbuilders and learned that 7,000 bdft of lumber went into Carlotta’s restoration. Lars was told that much of the lumber was purchased from West Wind Hardwood and that A&G’s customer only visited three times during the restoration! That’s faith that she was in good hands with Rob, Jean, and the Crew.

The latest chapter complete, she has been shipped back to the Southhampton area, the UK to a shipyard where the rigging and electrical will be completed.
But I digress, and we need to start at the beginning.

In The Beginning Statistics

Previous name/s: The Solway
Place built: Gloucester, UK
Official Registry no.: 102469
Construction material: English elm, oak, and pitch pine
Generic type: Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter
Designer and Builder: W. H. Halford
Length on deck (LOD): 50.00 ft
Length on waterline (LWL): 42.00 ft
Beam: 13.00 ft
Draft: 7.70 ft

I have never believed in re-inventing the wheel when there’s a perfectly good cog spinning round and round. I came across Gary Grieco’s blog about Carlotta. Gary Grieco is a freelance writer, avid reader, sailor, and motorcycle enthusiast based on Texada Island, BC, Canada. He’s done a wonderful job researching Carlotta’s history. I encourage you to continue reading her story entitled Romancing Carlotta originally published in the Powell River Living Magazine.

“Where else but the Salish Sea could two people live on an island named Sevilla, overlooking their own ship restoration project from the deck of a funky blue cottage?

Stephen and Barbra Mohan are doing just that. Along with 10-year-old son Jasper, they are following their dream and restoring Carlotta. She is a 110-year-old, 55 foot wooden Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter with a 10-foot retractable bowsprit. Carlotta is moored just below their house at the floating government dock in Finn Bay, just north of Lund.

Built in Gloucester, England in 1899 and originally named Solway, she was constructed in six months by a large crew of shipwrights under the direction of master boat-builder, William H. Halford. Its purpose was to be a police boat or protection cutter for the use of officers to patrol the fisheries in the Cumberland area of the English Channel. She was painted black with a vermillion cove stripe, and with the license number 2.

After six years of service she was sold as a rich man’s toy, and for the next 104 years has been an active sailing ship in private hands. The Solway’s new life began in 1907 when Lady Vivian found the boat in Whitehaven and converted her to a yacht, re-registering her under the name of Carlotta. She has mostly lived an adventurous life of racing and glamour. Lord Gort, the 6th Viscount Gort, loved Carlotta so much that he preferred to live aboard rather than ashore, in the family’s East Cowes Norris Castle.

In 1937 Bessie and Aleck Bourne of London bought Carlotta and spent the summers sailing around the coasts of northern Europe. During a stay in Brest in 1939, the radio receiver on board broke down. When they finally returned to civilization they received a telegram from London: RETURN HOME IMMEDIATELY. WAR IMMINENT. They promptly sailed north to the Island of Guernsey to keep Carlotta safe. The Germans landed at the Guernsey airport in June 1940. In exciting fashion right out of a spy novel, Carlotta and her crew escaped with minutes to spare.

Carlotta’s connection with Canada began with Peter Heiberg of Vancouver, who found her abandoned in the Fowey Estuary, England in 1973. She was in complete disrepair, but his search for a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter was over. He spent the next four years replacing frames and restoring her at Thomas Ponsharden’s Yard at Falmouth. Heiberg brought her to Canada by sailing her through the Panama Canal to Hawaii. He reached Vancouver after a quick passage averaging 180 miles a day, without an auxiliary engine.

The Pilot Cutters were well designed and fast, much like the Bluenose, according to Stephen Mohan. Heiberg raced Carlotta to victory many times in the Old Gaffer’s races in Vancouver’s English Bay. Heiberg tried to have Carlotta earn her keep by chartering and offering sail training to distressed juveniles. He never installed an engine, and Carlotta was possibly the only vessel to be towed by rowboat completely around Texada Island, other than Captain Vancouver’s ship on his voyage of discovery.

Heiberg’s love affair with Carlotta would last for over 30 years, and his decision to say goodbye to Carlotta was not an easy one. It was based on a promise that he made to himself. “The time to sell would be when he could no longer make one good voyage a year.” That time came in 2004. He knew of Stephen and Barbra’s love of his boat, and the Mohan’s jumped at the opportunity to be Carlotta’s new custodians.

Barbra and Stephen are both accomplished sailors, originally from the prairies, and proud of it. Barbra claims: “Prairie sailors are some of the best sailors because they learn their skills in small boats on treacherous waters like Lake Winnipeg.” Barbra has been sailing and teaching sailing skills since she was 12 years old. Stephen started out after high school with SALTS (Sail and Life Training Society), based in Victoria.

“I did anything to stay and work with SALTS”, said Stephen. ” I sailed summer trips on the 130 foot, tall ship Robertson II to Desolation Sound, and acted as the night watchman in harbour. I mainly kicked people out of the rigging after the bars emptied; eventually made bosun. In 1990 I sailed on the Robertson II to Spain and back, spending 20 out of 24 months on board during the trip. That’s where Barbra and I met.”

Barbra picks up the story. “We were on board together for eight months, from Spain to the West coast of Africa before traveling through the Panama Canal to Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands. I got off the boat in Hawaii, and we became engaged in the Marquesa Islands. Stephen sailed home with the boat.”

The Mohans are happiest in a marine environment. After Barbra graduated from University and Stephen left SALTS, they were both involved for six years with one of the first companies in Victoria to track and call in sightings of killer whales. “Even though commercial, in those days it was still considered an adventurous expedition”, said Barbra.

In 2000 the Mohans moved to Calgary where Barbra received her MBA, but the pull of the sea was strong. In 2003 they returned to Powell River where she took her present position as manager of Human Resources for the City. They purchased Carlotta the following year.

Now, six years later, Barbra rows herself and son, Jasper each morning from Sevilla Island to mainland Lund, then drives to Powell River while Stephen continues the restoration. Rather than a hardship, Barbra says, “We appreciate our situation on a daily basis. We look out the window at Carlotta, and say “Wow.”

After 15 years of marriage, Barbra agrees they are a good combination. “I love sailing and the lifestyle, and Stephen, though an experienced sailor, has a greater passion for the physical boat than I do. He loves the visual stimulation of colour and paints; the clean spaciousness and strength of it.”

The Mohans started the restoration of Carlotta in 2005 by first gutting the interior and pulling the mast and spars. Thirty-five hundred pounds of 40 lb. pig ballast had to be removed while several new frames and planks were fitted and installed at Jack’s Boat Yard in Finn Bay, with the help and advice from master shipwright, Bill McKee.

Over the next few years, Stephen and Barbra restored the companionway hatch and skylight to their original condition. They built a new main boom; removed the old deck; and constructed a new aft counter at the stern of Carlotta. New deck beams were shaped and installed, and the gimballed table and a companionway leading below were restored. When I suggest that they have a romantic lifestyle, Stephen laughs, “Not a whole lot of romance in sawing out rotten oak beams.”

In 2008 a new cockpit was finished, based on the original, and the forward hatch was restored.
The new deck is finally in place, and the original wooden mast has just been raised. Carlotta is now ready to celebrate her restoration and new life.

There are only 17 Pilot Cutters left in the world. One boat is in the U.S.A; the Mohan’s, and the rest mostly in the UK where they get together several times a year for races. Eventually, the Mohans would like to live aboard, and they dream that one day they will sail Carlotta back to Europe.”

Sadly, at the time this article was written, The Mohans were not to know that their dream was not to be fulfilled.
There are many who have in the past, and still today, a dream of owning an original Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. The history of these wonderful boats, the people who sailed them and the stories that are now told about them are all fascinating and awe-inspiring, giving us a glimpse of a different world. There are so many interesting stories entwined with the pilot cutters.

Not only did these boats do a superb job working in often very harsh conditions, but many of them went on to write their own individual stories after retiring from pilot duty. There are so many untold stories of voyages and adventures carried out by these old boats and their owners, a testament to the superb evolution of the design that brought about a breed of fantastic sea boats, in the right hands capable of taking their crews anywhere in the world.


  1. I once did a piece for Shaw TV featuring Carlotta –
    Jasper is in it –
    I always felt it was a privilege to have been aboard her and talk to Stephen about their dreams –

    A reminder that Life has many gunk holes to be explored and we have adventures in each one –

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