GOING TO SEA IN A CORNISH PILOT GIG

The following is an article which appeared in summer 2012 issue*. As the World Pilot Gig Championships approach, it seems like a good time to repost it on our website for gig fans up and down the North Devon coast and beyond…

* We’ve tried to bring facts and figures up to date as far as is possible but if your club’s membership figures have since risen and you would like us to amend do let us know.

WORDS by Tony James
CONTEMPORARY PHOTOS by Andrew Hobbs

A strong north-westerly had blown up unexpectedly on that September Saturday and yachts – ours included – scurried towards the shelter of Ilfracombe harbour.

But riding calmly as a gull on the disorderly white water, the sleek burgundy-coloured six-oared pilot gig had no intention of making a drama out of a bit of heavy weather.

Strong, measured strokes brought Ilfracombe Pilot Gig Club’s Rapparee straight as an arrow across the waves, regardless of wind and tide and into the calm of the anchorage where a wind-blown round of applause from a few onlookers on the quay was received with studied nonchalance by the gig crew.

Far from home, the Cornish pilot gig – to its devotees the ultimate expression of the boatbuilder’s art – is becoming an increasingly familiar sight on the sea around Exmoor.  Rowing a delicately-built 32ft boat among the perils of the ‘Drowning Coast’ may sound like maritime madness but today pilot gig rowing and racing is becoming increasingly popular among Exmoor enthusiasts and is constantly getting new converts.

You need to be fit and able to handle a 12-13ft, 9¾-10lb oar at up to eight knots in a lively sea, but now hundreds of male and female enthusiasts from teenagers to pensioners are deriving enormous pleasure and satisfaction from going to sea in a gig.

There are now half a dozen thriving gig clubs along our coast, most of which are about to compete in this summer’s 28th World Championships which attracts over 2,000 rowers and 130 boats to the Isles of Scilly and constitutes the undoubted highlight of the gig-rower’s year.

“Seeing well over 100 beautiful pilot gigs on the water at once is a hell of a sight and one you never forget,” says the Hon. John Rous, current owner of the Clovelly estate and president and a founder member of Clovelly Pilot Gig Club, the first in North Devon and the only one rowing locally-built boats.

Founded in 2001, Clovelly may be one of our smallest clubs, but it’s keenly active.  As well as competing in local regattas and the World Championships, they have (like others including Appledore and Torridge Pilot Gig Clubs) made the challenging 32-mile trip to Lundy.

“We may be small but we’re really enthusiastic,” John Rous says. “We’re particularly pleased that young people are finding the sport so enjoyable.”

The regulations governing gig-building are draconian to say the least and the two Clovelly boats Christine H and Leah C, built by Appledore shipwrights Ford and Cawsey, were checked and measured at least three times by Cornish Pilot Gig Association inspectors.

The criterion for all competitive gigs was established nearly 170 years ago when a boat was launched in a Cornish creek which would make sure that rowing on the sea would never be quite the same again.

The late Ralph Bird in his gig shed, courtesy Tony James.

John Peters and his son William had been building six-oared pilot gigs, which doubled as lifeboats and salvage vessels on the Fal at St Mawes, since 1791 and in 1844 William accepted the starkly simple commission from a Newquay pilot: “Build me the fastest gig ever!”

Peters took on the challenge.  Today the Treffry (pronounced Tref-rye by those who know) is still in racing trim at Newquay and every new boat has to be a carbon-copy of her.  The Treffry was built for £1 a foot.  Today a club can expect to pay £20-24,000 for a thoroughbred racing gig from one of the West Country’s eight specialist shipwrights.

Beam on: work in progress in the late Ralph Bird gig shed.

For that you get well over 1,000 hours of craftsmanship, the finest seasoned oak and elm – and a skill and tradition which is beyond price.

The delicacy of a pilot gig is frightening – the elm planking is barely a quarter-inch thick – but paradoxically it’s the length and lightness which provide its legendary strength and flexibility and allow the boat to survive in virtually any sea.. Photo taken in the late Ralph Bird gig shed, courtesy Tony James as above.

The delicacy of a pilot gig is frightening – the elm planking is barely a quarter-inch thick – but paradoxically it’s the length and lightness which provide its legendary strength and flexibility and allow the boat to survive in virtually any sea.

The stronghold of Exmoor gig rowing can today be found behind Bideford Bar in the Taw-Torridge estuary where four clubs exist in friendly but deadly-serious rivalry.

Appledore Pilot Gig Rowing Club was formed in 2003 after chairman Len White realised that the estuary would be the perfect place for gigs.  “We had them years ago to take pilots out to ships and it seemed an ideal sport for Appledore.”  The idea took off and the club now has more than 80 members, two racing gigs, Verbena and Whitford, both from the Dartmouth yard of Brian Pomeroy, and a couple of training boats.

“It’s a tribute to the growing enthusiasm for gigs that we can have four clubs so close together and they all get such good support,” Len White says.

By the early-nineteenth century at least 200 gigs were stationed around the peninsula.  They put pilots onto ships, often roaming 50 miles out into the Western Approaches in search of business, and were used to ferry flowers, potatoes, animals and passengers from the Scillies to the mainland.

The Torridge Pilot Gig Club, also based in Appledore since 2006, has around 75 members, two classic racing gigs, Will To Win and Kerens, and two training boats financed by fund-raising and sponsorship.  There’s a wide spread of membership, according to treasurer Juliette Hayward, ranging from juniors to rowers over 65.

“We’re pleased to see several generations of the same family getting involved.  Youngsters see their parents rowing, try it for themselves and then often go on to join senior teams.”

Bideford’s gig club was only founded in 2010 although it has been a rowing town for 200 years.  In its very first three months it raised enough money to buy a secondhand gig from Cornwall.

“It’s great just how widely the interest in Cornish gigs has spread,” says club chairman Andrew Curtis.  “You can now find them in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wales and Bristol [not forgetting Holland, which is home to a thriving passion for gigs, and even Boston Massachusetts, Bermuda and Kuwait!] and it can only be good for the sport.  We have a lovely piece of sheltered water but to prepare for World Championships conditions we’ve been out practising in Bideford Bay.”

Barnstaple also set up a gig rowing club in 2010 and within 12 months had 50 members and an £8,000 secondhand training gig from Plymouth.  Further fund-raising and a charitable trust
donation allowed the club to order a £20,000 Brian Pomeroy gig which was named Lady Freda and launched in March 2011.

“Our GRP training gig helps cater for a membership which now numbers more than 80 as interest in gig racing in the
Barnstaple area keeps growing,” says press officer Chris Walter.

Over on the Bristol Channel, Ilfracombe’s boisterous nautical past is reflected in the club’s gigs.  Rapparee is named after a cove near the town in which shackled human remains from a slave ship wrecked there in 1796 were discovered 200 years later.  The club’s second boat, Rogue, built by Brian Pomeroy, remembers a local family of wreckers known as ‘the Rogues of Rapparee’.  Rogue, Rapparee and Appledore’s Whitford and Verbena are all built, believe it or not, using timber from the same tree!  Rogue was financed by the sale of
64 shares – a time-honoured way of buying a boat.

Very little is known of the ancestry of the West Country gigs although the present-day craft probably owe something to the shallow-draught fast rowing boats of Arctic Finland and Norway. But we do know that by the early-nineteenth century at least 200 gigs were stationed around the peninsula.  They put pilots onto ships, often roaming 50 miles out into the Western Approaches in search of business, and were used to ferry flowers, potatoes, animals and passengers from the Scillies to the mainland.

On a rare day off, gig crews might row to France for a little smuggling, a round trip of about 250 miles, to bring back brandy, lace and silks.  No customs cutter could catch a pilot gig – resulting in legislation in 1850 banning eight-oared gigs.  Today’s boats still have eight thwarts but one is for the cox and the other is now traditionally called the ‘seagull seat’!

As gig racing booms in North Devon, no one forgets what they owe to one man.  In a workshop next to his Pilot Gig Cottage on a tiny Cornish creek, Ralph Bird devoted his life to building and restoring these beautiful boats and in the process became the father of modern pilot gig racing.

Over 30 years Ralph single-handedly built 29 exquisite gigs and restored some of the original iconic craft, including Treffry. Once when we were chatting in his study over mugs of tea, Ralph admitted that he was still mystified by the alchemy which differentiated a winner from a loser.

“You try to make them all the same but they all perform differently.  I honestly can’t tell you why.”  It didn’t matter: all Ralph’s gigs were winners and when he died at 67 in 2009, the new owners – a Welsh club – named his last boat Ralph Bird, a fitting tribute to a master craftsman and a lovely man.

There’s always something unexpected in gig rowing.  An Ilfracombe crew out training rescued a middle-aged man drifting half a mile off-shore in a rubber dinghy at five knots in the direction of Lundy.  “He had no idea of the danger he was in,” says Stuart Cansfield.

“Another time we picked up a gig oar which had been lost by a Padstow boat 50 miles down-channel.  We took it to the World Championships in the Scillies and gave it back to the Padstow crew.  With oars at £2,000 a set, they were delighted to have it. They never expected to see it again.”

Watch out for more in our summer issue, out in May…