The Revival Of Cornish Pilot Gig Racing 1

The always reliable and alert HTBS correspondent Tim Koch in London did not only relax during his Christmas holidays in Cornwall, he had a promise to keep, so here is the first part of his story about Cornish pilot gig racing. Tim writes,

My entry of 30th November on inrigged rowing in Britain today ended with the afterthought that I should have included something on the thriving sport of Cornish Pilot Gig racing and the promise that I would write something after spending Christmas in my native county, Cornwall. Now, thanks to the generous hospitality of Falmouth Gig Club, I am able to bring a first hand report.

The county of Cornwall forms the tip of the south western peninsula of England. It is bordered to the west and north by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the English Channel and to the east by the River Tamar. Naturally, it has a strong maritime tradition. In Cornwall the prevailing winds come from the south west so it is easier to row a boat to windward than to sail it and this led to the development of the Cornish Pilot Gig, a coxed, fixed seat, six oared, clinker built rowing boat. It is built of narrow leaf elm and modern boats are all 32 feet (9.8m) long with a beam of 4 feet 10 inches (1.47m). The gunwales are too thin to support rowlocks so tholes or ‘pins’ are used. One of each pair of pins is ‘hard’ (to act as a fulcrum for the oar) and one is ‘soft’ (designed to break in the event of ‘catching a crab’). Gigs are light, buoyant and manageable in heavy seas. As the name suggests, their principal use was to carry ‘pilots’ out to incoming vessels so that they could use their local knowledge to guide ships through dangerous or congested waters. The fastest gig got their man on board first and so won the pilotage fee. Thus, gig racing was born.

When engines replaced sails and oars, interest in racing these boats declined but the sport clung on in Newquay (on the north Cornish coast) and in the Isles of Scilly (28 miles / 45 km west of Cornwall). However, by the 1980s, gig races and the few remaining boats were in danger of dying out. This was changed largely through the efforts of a remarkable local man, Ralph Bird. He triggered a revival by three courses of action. Firstly, Bird organised races. Secondly, he formed the Cornish Pilot Gig Association (CPGA) to see that future gigs were built to an agreed standard and to set the rules of racing. Thirdly, he (eventually) built 29 new gigs with his own hands. The ‘standard’ boat was to be based on the Treffry, built in 1838 and still owned by Newquay Rowing Club. A new boat costs nearly £20,000 ($31,200) and now the two principal boat builders are Hunkins and Nobbs.

Today there are over 50 clubs (owning over 130 boats between them) affiliated to the CPGA. They are mostly from Cornwall but some are from other parts of the UK. There are also clubs in France, the Netherlands, Australia, the Faroe Islands and the USA. Over 7,000 people take part in gig racing at more than 300 regattas around the South West each summer and the ‘World Championships’ are held every May in the Isles of Scilly. The numbers are growing all the time.

To be continued tomorrow…


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