RRM@21 – 6: Ocean Gig to Carbon Tiger

Carbon Tiger in the Rowing Gallery at RRM. Photo: Tim Koch.

1 March 2019 

By Chris Dodd 

River & Rowing wouldn’t be a museum without boats. Chris Dodd continues his founder’s recollections of the creation of the RRM and putting together its core collection.

From the beginning, boats had to be the backbone of the museum’s collection. When construction began, we curators had the luxury of possessing no objects and the teeth-chattering challenge of creating a collection to fill our space from nothing. There would be no place comparable. Locating boats that complied with one or all of our three criteria – prototype, fame or representation – turned out to be a lot of fun.

The core of the boat collection hangs in the rowing gallery. The historical bookends of eight-oared racing craft consist of the boat that won the first University Boat Race for Oxford in 1829 and the Carbon Tiger, a revolutionary prototype that made its entry in 1976. A Cornish boat builder working in Oxford in 1828 built the Oxford eight-oar, sometimes described as a cutter and sometimes a gig, for Balliol College, Oxford. It is of clinker (or overlapping plank, lapstreak) construction, side-seated and owes design features to both ocean-going Cornish pilot gigs and boats plying their trade on the non-tidal Thames. It was liberated from the Science Museum where it was on show in a gallery that was due for a makeover and was moved to Henley in the small hours of a Sunday morning after being craned through a hole in the wall of its old home.

Photograph taken in 1929 – Oxford’s 1829 boat (left) and Oxford’s 1929 boat (right).

There was a hitch, though, before it was moved, the South Kensington Museum had second thoughts about shifting the boat just when it had been designed into the rowing gallery at Henley. The RRM’s CEO, Jonathan Bryant, called me to his office and asked me what I would do if the promise of this key boat fell through.

‘I’d leave a big space with a prominent caption accusing the Science Museum of reneging on the agreement,’ I told him. ‘And I would issue a press release trumpeting the situation.’

The Oxford boat arrived on time at the place where it had made history in 1829.

Carbon Tiger takes its name from the material that made it. It was moulded in carbon fibre, and with its double scull cousin Carbon Cub, heralded the end of wood as the favoured construction material for racing boats. Made by British Aerospace and designed by John Vigurs, it was tested by the British eight at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, eventually ending its active life as spare parts for Durham University’s later model. Clive Hole, coach at Durham School, hung it in the rafters at Brown’s boathouse on the off-chance that a museum came along. And it came to pass.

Bob Janoušek, the coach who trialled the Carbon Tiger and then joined Vigurs at the inventor’s company to manufacture Carbocraft, restored the boat to its former glory as a contribution to the museum. When this occurred, Carbocraft had gone bust, but Janoušek Racing and the Vespoli company in the U.S. rose from its ashes – two very successful makers of synthetic boats.

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