Rowing has played a major part in such places. Competitions between the fastest boats and strongest crews were a regular feature as the rowers raced out many miles into the sea to transfer a “pilot” (local navigator) onto incoming sailing vessels. The incentive to be quick was that only the first gig there would get paid!

“During the 1830s, 40s and 50s gig racing became a popular sport around Cornwall,” explains Anne Curnow Care, Secretary to the Cornish Pilot Gig Association (CPGA). These were some of the earliest participants in a recognisable form of what we now call open water rowing”.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the CPGA’s founding in 1986, when it was set up to ensure that the integrity of the original Cornish Pilot Gigs was maintained from club to club.

Since then the sport has continued to grow and boasts participants and clubs across the south and south west of England and Wales, as well as the Netherlands and increasingly the United States.

Traditions of the boat

Made with traditional ‘clinker build’ construction (overlapping wooden boards as opposed to the single smooth surface of a flat-water racing shell) and measuring 32 feet (9.8 metres) in length and 4 foot 10 inches (1.5 metres) in width, Cornish Pilot Gigs are well suited to the rigours of the tumultuous coastal waters.

“The sport is based on the history and traditions of the boat built to a specific design,” Care says. “A one class design.”

The single design she refers to is that laid down in 1790 by Cornish boat builder William Peters. “Little did he know,” says Care, “that his determination to achieve perfection – choice of timber, the right turn of wood to make the ‘knees,’ submerging timber to season for up to five years,” would see his design endure.

In fact, the building of each boat is a big event that club members follow closely to this day and great care is taken in the naming of a new gig.

Racing

Racing in these boats of six rowers on fixed seats and a coxswain can be done over a straight course, but usually the course has some turns, which ensures the whole event is visible from the shore.

“A typical race,” says Care, “is in an anticlockwise direction around a ‘kite course’ (three buoy turns).” Regattas can have anywhere from ten to over 100 participating crews, with heats over multiple days.

Since 1990, the World Pilot Gig Championships have been held on the Isles of Scilly (a small island group off the western tip of Cornwall) under the auspices of the IOS World Championships Committee. The first of two main events is a straight course between islands where up to 150 gigs line up together for the start. Results of this race seed to heats for the next day’s elimination events.

Pilot gig racing in America is primarily in the New England region of the north east with gig events even taking place in an annual Snow Row event each winter that also includes other traditional coastal rowing craft.

In the Netherlands, five gig clubs currently boast large memberships. “They race throughout the season (March to November),” says Care, “with the culmination at the Pampas Mudien Races (in Amsterdam) in November.”

Cornish pilot gig boats lined up on the beach © Cornish Pilot Gig Association

 

Growing the sport

As interest in Cornish Pilot Gig rowing grows, clubs continue to pop up and the CPGA is eager to provide information to those wishing to get involved or start something in their own community, even where it hasn’t traditionally taken place.

“A core nucleus of people normally have an idea that it would be a good idea to start a club,” says Care. “Naturally this grows with support from the local community.”

Even in areas where flat water rowing is more common, people are looking to the rougher coastal waters (as evidenced by the huge growth in coastal rowing around the world) as well as more traditional forms of the sport such as Cornish Pilot Gig racing.

“We are now starting to see other rowing groups become more interested in fixed seat rowing,” Care says, “and coupled with the visual attraction of the boats, we have a naturally growing sport. The CPGA membership is a sharing community.”

For more information on the Cornish Pilot Gig Association or for assistance in starting your own club please visit their website: http://www.cpga.co.uk/ or contact Anne Curnow Care directly at secretary@cpga.co.uk .