On one of the occasions that the Pettifer family were sailing Alpha, she is thought to have run aground in the River Orwell after a misjudgement with the tide and did not rise until within two deck planks of the cockpit coaming. That must have been interesting. At some time before 1980 Alpha acquired a square sail, believed to have come from the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Saladin, ex-Maud. But by 1987 she had for some time been laid up at Lowestoft.
On Neil Pettifer’s retirement, he and Pauline decided to retire to Skye. Alpha was sailed to Skye, the long way round, and it was in Scotland that Mike Humphries, who happened to be on holiday in the Hebrides, saw her. Though he admitted to knowing very little at the time about Bristol Channel pilot cutters, the green canvas deck cover and the dour Scottish winter’s day could not conceal Alpha’s romance, beauty and spirit.


So he bought her, but before he had taken delivery, dream became the stuff of nightmare as she fell away from the quay, staving in her port side. Choosing to go ahead and buy her, Mike had Alpha on the slip at Corpach, Fort William for a major refit. Out went most of her interior joinery and all the original concrete ballast. On the port side, 24 frames were replaced, along with the beam shelf and bilge stringers. A new deck and bulwarks all round were also installed. Alpha had been a yacht for a good 70 years, and at some stage during this time a skylight had been added forward of the cockpit; Mike decided to do away with this unoriginal feature. As part of the refit, extra berths were put in for skipper and mate. The boat was henceforth to be used for chartering.


Come the relaunch, Alpha was less than enthusiastic to take to water, and a party of onlookers was put to use standing at the bows. The trick worked, and Alpha floated off. Her first charter was in March 1992, a cruise from Bristol to Craobhaven, near Oban. In 1992 the stainless steel rigging was renewed, and in 1998 a new mast was stepped. Though the pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel were rigged so they could, supposedly, be sailed comfortably in all conditions with a crew of two, Alpha, fully rigged, carries five sails, making plenty of work for a crew of six willing amateurs of mixed ability and sailing experience. Michael Humphries says she is ideal for the chartering work for which she was used for the eleven years to 2003 (with one fallow year). The arrival of a new crew every Saturday for the start of the next six-day cruise was anticipated with curiosity touched by anxiety.


Michael cannot recall a single cruise with a wholly incompetent crew, but he does have fond memories of a group who charmingly dubbed themselves “The Incomepetents”, and they added a new command to the nautical lexicon.