This weekend I was down in Ilfracombe, North Devon, to compete in my first gig boat regatta. I was placed in position 4 (midships) in the Women’s B crew for Bristol Gig Boat Club. I first joined the club in 2015, but until now, I hadn’t been able to commit to regattas outside of my usual 2-3 nights-a-week training on Bristol’s floating harbour. I was excited to finally get a chance to race on the sea and experience how waves and tide impact the boat and my rowing technique; after all, gig boats were designed for offshore rowing, not calm harbour waters.
So what are gig boats you may ask?
Well, contrary to much of what I write about on this blog, they are nothing to do with the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and they don’t directly involve sailing, although gig boats are a significant part of South West England’s maritime history; Cornwall’s in particular. A gig boat – more correctly, a Cornish Pilot Gig – is a 6 oared, wooden rowing boat. Traditionally, gigs were rowed along the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as a way of getting a pilot with local knowledge of the waters to large sailing ships so that they could navigate them safely into land. The first pilot to the ship would gain the much needed commission, and so these boats were built to be fast. The last gig used for pilotage was the ‘Gipsy’ from St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, on the 21st December 1938. The ship was ‘SS Foremost’ and the fee for pilotage was the equivalent of £3.65.
Gig racing as we know it began in the early 20th Century. During the industrial revolution the need for working pilot gigs had fallen, and the boats which were once so vital to a community became redundant. One story even tells of a gig being cut in half and used as a chicken shed. However, all was not lost. In areas like Newquay and the Isles of Scilly, gig racing became a sport. In 1921, just after the end of the 1st World War, Newquay set up the first Pilot gig racing club. Since then, the sport has grown exponentially, with over 100 gig clubs now in existence, and clubs founded throughout Devon and Cornwall, and internationally in France, Holland and the US. Over 140 boats now compete in heats at the World Pilot Gig Championships, which is extremely competitive to get a boat entered for.
Gigs are 32 feet long and are planked in Cornish Small leaf Elm. At the widest point they are no wider than 4 feet 10 inches, but all new gigs are built to the same specification, which the Cornish Pilot Gig Association (CPGA) inspectors monitor during each new gig construction. The modern oars we use are made of Silver Spruce and differ in size according to the seat position in the gig. The stroke and bow oars are shorter because the gig is narrower in these positions. There are 8 thwarts (seats) in each gig; 1 for the Coxswain (Cox), 6 for the rowers and 1 for the Pilot (‘Seagull’). The rowers have 1 oar, with 3 rowers on each side of the gig, alternating Strokeside (those sitting on the Portside, oar to rower’s left), then Bowside (those sitting on the Starboard side, oar to rower’s right) etc. The position immediately facing the Cox (who steers the gig using a rudder) is position 6, known as ‘the Stroke’. The Stroke sets the pace, which is a key role in gig racing. Position 5, on bowside, works in tandem with the Stroke. Midships, position 4 and 3, are the power house of the gig, driving the boat through the water with much longer oars. Position 1, at the bow, plays a vital role in gig racing as they have to be adept at tossing their oar from bowside to strokeside and back, on turning round marker buoys. Given the sheer weight of these oars and the speed at which this needs to happen, this is no easy task! The bow pair (rowers 1 and 2) also tend to get extremely wet in choppy seas!
Bristol Pilot Gig Boat Club (BPGBC) was established fairly recently, in 2007, but boasts competitive crews at all levels (youth, seniors, veterans and supervets), as well as introducing new members who may never have rowed before. The club also have crews that just want to row for fun and the social side, rather than competitively. The club races from May to September, all along the West Country coast, and even as far afield as London, Ireland and Holland. Training happens throughout the year, whatever the weather, on Bristol’s floating harbour and all competitive crews also use the rowing machines (‘ergs’) at the marina for training.
At the weekend I found myself finally getting to experience what gig racing is all about at Ilfracombe regatta rowing in Isambard, which was launched on the 27th January, 2007 and was the club’s first gig, built by RB boat builders, who are based in Bristol harbour’s Underfall Yard. She was named after the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer who designed, among other things, the Clifton Suspension bridge and the SS Great Britain.
As usual, I was apprehensive about my first regatta for the club, especially as those of us selected to be Bristol’s Women’s B team had never rowed together before. We were a great mix of ages spanning 5 decades and we rowed hard! During the race I was utterly oblivious as to what was going on around me and our position in the race, because all rowers are trained to keep their ‘heads in the boat’ and just focus on our oar and making sure the blade ‘catches’ in time with the other rowers’ blades. However, spectating club rowers took photos and videos from the harbour wall, which upon viewing made us all chuffed to bits to see that at the very start of the race, we pulled away first and were leading (until Appledore’s white gig caught us up and promptly overtook us!). We were also chuffed to see that our 2nd positioned in the race was held for the majority of the race and that the distance between us and the 3rd gig and rest of the fleet was quite a large margin. Not a bad performance for my first regatta, although I think a lot of our ‘success’ had to do with the fantastic coxing and vocal motivation being yelled at us by our Cox during the race; she knew how to keep us focused and use energy we didn’t know we had left by shouting: “grind!”, “Push hard for 10”, “shoulders in the back of the boat”, “lean!”, “timing!”.
Just as with yacht racing, strategically, the Cox wants to ensure they get the gig up to the marker buoys ahead of the fleet to ensure they have right of way round the buoy and can therefore take a tight corner; wide corners only serve to make the rowers row further and therefore, usually drop position(s). Turning round buoys is an art in itself as the bow rower tosses their oar to give more power to the side of the gig that’s leading the turn and if the gig is very close to the buoy then all rowers on the side closest to the marker buoy, must lift their oars – almost like a ‘Mexican wave’ – over the buoy in a smooth manoeuvre that ensures the gig doesn’t loose speed/momentum. Also, just as with yacht racing, an experienced Cox will use the swell and waves to their advantage, in order to keep the gig moving without losing momentum. Ilfracombe gig club did really well in this regatta, but then they were rowing in home waters so knew the course and its tides and eddies etc. Such knowledge gives all gig boats a critical edge in an offshore regatta. Although the weather wasn’t anything special, it was a special day for me in my own involvement with my club and I am now eagerly awaiting my next regatta at Lyme Regis on the 10th August. If you live locally, why don’t you come down and enjoy the regatta for yourselves?
For anyone who is interested in local maritime history then one of my favourite books about Pilots in Bristol is this little gem about the Pilots of Crockerne Pill, located on the River Avon at the mouth of the Bristol Channel.
It’s about their struggle to maintain their role and defend their jobs in nineteenth century Bristol. Pill residents were looked upon by the Bristol authorities and many town-dwellers, as disorderly and difficult. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the realisation took hold that the interests of the pilots and watermen of Pill had much in common with trade unionists in Bristol and the wider labour movement. The book, The Experience of the Pilots and Watermen of Crockerne Pill in the Nineteenth Century by Mike Richardson, can be bought here.