Tuesday 16 July 2024

Gig Racing

The sport of Pilot Gig Racing has evolved over a number of years from what was once a way if earning a living. Throughout the history of the pilot gig there have been heroic rescues, jobs in pilotage and now the rapidly expanding sport.

Taken from a traditional design, the gigs that are constructed today follow the original specifications as laid down by the Peters family in the form of the gig 'Treffry' (1838), which is still actively rowed by the Newquay Rowing Club. Over 200 years ago William Peters working in his yard at Polvarth, St. Mawes, Cornwall would have probably given little thought to the future of his craft. But for us today they are an historical asset, a testament to the skill of the Peters family. Built from narrow leaf (ideally) Cornish elm and inspected at least three times during their build by the Association Standards Officer, the modern gig is a speedy and seaworthy craft.

Cornish Gig Rowing through the ages by Emma Gage

The Cornish Pilot Gig

For over two hundred years, pilot gigs have been a common feature of the shores of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Today these colourful craft can be found in almost every coastal community in Cornwall and the wider south west, and pilot gig racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, with new clubs springing up every year and more gigs being built. However few are aware of the fascinating history of these remarkable craft. A history that so nearly came to an end in the mid twentieth century. Without the actions of a few largely unsung heroes in Newquay, this aspect of Cornish life would have been completely lost.

 The Cornish Pilot Gig evolved around the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as a tough seaworthy craft capable of getting a pilot out to ships approaching the local harbours. Times were hard and the first pilot to reach the approaching ship would be the one that was paid,  so with each port having a number of pilots,  they would race to be the first to the ship and get the commission with the losers going home empty handed. To ensure their crews were first, the pilots of some ports would try all sorts of ruses to outwit their rivals.   In one instance of rivalry between Falmouth and St Mawes, a crew was called during the night and, to ensure they made as little noise as possible,   they walked through the streets in stockinged feet so that they were not heard by their rivals.   The St Mawes gig crews would hide in a narrow cove near St Anthony lighthouse, where they could watch the progress of the Falmouth gigs. If they saw one approach,  they could launch ahead of them,   and so steal the commission from their local rivals.This cove was once called 'Gig Hole'  but sadly this name has been lost.

Gigs would also row long distances to secure pilotages.  St Ives and Hayle  gigs often ventured as far as Lundy, in order to intercept colliers bound from South Wales, while the rival  Falmouth  and  St Mawes  gigs could be found as far up the Channel as the  Eddystone lighthouse.

Gigs were also used as lifeboats, saving countless lives from the frequent shipwrecks around our treacherous coast, their manoeuvrability and lightness in the water enabling them to penetrate dangerous coves and rocky shores. Many lives were saved by these brave souls, who in some cases paid with their lives for their bravery.

One notable wreck was that of the American seven masted schooner,  the Thomas W Lawson in 1907. She was carrying a cargo of 60,000 barrels of paraffin, a cargo worth half the value of the ship.  Her voyage across the Atlantic had been beset by terrible weather,  with all her lifeboats and rafts all having been smashed and washed overboard, and her sails damaged.  Reaching the Scillies the weather was poor and she was soon in trouble. The St Marys and St Agnes lifeboats both suffered problems and tugs were summoned. A watch was kept from shore,  but her lights were lost in the early hours. By daylight there was a smell of paraffin and only wreckage was to be seen. The gig Slippen was launched and found a number of bodies, and three survivors, in the boiling sea.  All the crew were presented with gold medals by the US Government.  The story of the Thomas W Lawson and the Slippen did not end there.  In 2002/3 she was shipped over for a year to Massachusetts for an exhibition based around the Lawson.  The American museum paid for her restoration,  and while she was there she took part in gig races with US rowers, including the gruelling Snow Row in Boston,  a race where sea ice is often a hazard. Rowed by a British Crew she won that race convincingly, and is probably the only gig to have been rowed both sides of the Atlantic.

Gigs would also salvage cargo from shipwrecks, in the case of the wreck of the transatlantic liner the Minnehaha in 1906,  this was a cargo of  'cattle'. All but ten of the 223 unfortunate creatures were rescued, and tied by their horns alongside the Scillies gigs,  including the Czar and taken to Sampson. The crew and passengers were all rescued,  and for their efforts in this, and the salvage,  the men of Bryher were granted a sum of £500.

The gigs were also used for carrying cargo of all types,  the Campernell on St Agnes being particularly wide to accommodate coffins! In these times gigs varied in length and width (beam),  and four oared gigs were also common,  two examples being the Sally and Mabel based on St Michael’s Mount. One of the shortest gigs was the Slippen. Though still raced today, at 28 feet,  she is a good four foot shorter,  than the standard racing gigs we use today.


 Such versatile craft were also put to use in that other common Cornish activity of the time - free trading or as it is now better known- smuggling. This was a way of life for many around the coast,  and particularly so in the more deserted coves,  and around the Isles of Scilly.  Gigs would be used to bring contraband from Brittany,  with the St Martins pilot John Nance making an incredible 25 smuggling trips to Roscoff in the gig Bonnet.  The smugglers did not have it all their own way,  and many gigs were stopped by the Preventative Services. In fact it was this battle of wills that helped define the gig of today with six oars.  A Government Order had banned the building of eight oared gigs, as the Customs cutters could not catch them up wind.

Smuggling was a dangerous game. The gig Bull met her end in 1838,  with a complete crew being lost,  returning from a smuggling trip to France.  The Governor of the Isles of Scilly Augustus Smith , was so determined to end the practice,  that he ordered the demolition of any cottages built on the proceeds of smuggling.  It was estimated that in the heyday of smuggling more contraband was landed by the customs officers in Scilly, than in the Excise warehouse in London.

 Regattas in the 1800s

In the late 1800s regattas were commonplace around the coast,  and gigs often competed.   In those days this was for money with prizes of around £5 for the winning crew. This may not sound much today but was a good amount of money for then.  However without todays vehicles and trailers,  the only way for a gig to attend such a race was to be rowed,  or sailed there,  from her home port,  or loaded onto a cart.  This understandably limited the numbers involved.  The sport was particularly popular on the Isles of Scilly,  and competition was fierce.  One very competitive gig was called the Cetewayo, named after a Zulu king who had visited Plymouth in 1882.  This gig based on the island of St Agnes,  was considered to be the fastest gig on the islands, to the extent that she was even banned from some regattas.  Unable to race she was left unused to rot away,  as was the fate of so many gigs at that time,  until in 1903, the men of the island noticed that the usual notice  “Cetewayo banned”  had not appeared in association with a race on St Marys. She was dragged out of the undergrowth and down to the sea,  patched up with everything from brown paper, rags, soap and tar, to get her into shape.  From the start of the race she shot ahead,  and eventually won by almost half a mark, but the racing had taken its toll, and it was to be the last race Cetewayo ever competed in.  Leaking badly,  her crew dared not even take her home to St Agnes, and she simply disintegrated on the beach.

 Ann Glanville

Racing was not only for the men and one oarswoman from Saltash  -  AnnGlanville -  became almost a legend in the rowing world.   In the space of ten years from 1831 to 1841,  women's racing in the Plymouth regattas,  moved from being an object of mirth,  to the chief attraction.  The change was led by the Saltash women,  and Ann Glanville led these women. She was first recorded as a competitor in 1833,  coming second in a four oared gig race.  In 1835,  at the age of 38,  after winning a race in her gig “Alarm”,   she received special praise. The reported stating   “she is the glory of Saltash….and has added another wreath to her already glowing honours”

 Ann was one of a large family of Saltash riversiders,  dependent on the Tamar and Lynher for a living.  It was claimed that she had competed in every local race and never been beaten,  becoming a local celebrity by challenging men to races,  and as seasoned professional oarswomen,  beating the shellshocked male opposition.  The writer Rev Sabine Baring-Gould,  was largely responsible for perpetuating the story,  that Ann and her crew travelled to Le Harvre in France in 1850,  and whilst there, defeated a crew of French sailors.   It was said her rallying speech of   “bend your backs to it maidens, and hurrah for old England”,  enabled her crew to overcome six boats and win the race.  Whilst there is some truth to the story, there was a lot of spin involved,   as effectively she had become a professional sportswoman in the hands of promoters. What cannot be denied is that Ann and her crew were formidable rowers. It seems incredible,  that as well as rowing for a living,  Ann had 14 children,  with at least one of her daughters Harriet,  joining her in the crew. Ann Glanville died in 1880 aged 84,  and today one of the Caradon gigs based at Saltash bears her name.

 The Peters of St Mawes

 The history of the gig as we know know it probably began in around the year 1790,  when the Peters family of St Mawes, received an order for a gig,  to be used for saving life on the north coast of Cornwall.   It is thought that this gig became in effect,  the first Padstow lifeboat,  as she was reported to have 6 oars and be kept in a boathouse 30 feet long. The Peters family, particularly William Peters,  after whom a modern gig from Roseland Gig Club of St Mawes,  is named,  were skilled boat builders,  and much sought after for gigs.  Many of the best gigs,  including the Cetewayo,  were built by the Peters family over a period of about one hundred years.   A testament to their quality is that, of all the old gigs still in existence,  all bar one,  were built by the Peters.

 Decline and Revival

 By the early years of the twentieth century the gigs were in decline, with powered pilot boats rendering them obsolete.  While the last commercial use of a six oared gig, to put a pilot on a vessel was as late as 1938,  by then this was a very unusual occurrence.  Many gigs were lost,  simply left to rot or broken apart for other uses.  A handful of gigs survived on the Isles of Scilly,  but only in one town in Cornwall did gig racing survive,  this was Newquay.  Three old gigs were based in the town and apart from Scilly,  Newquay was the last port in Cornwall,  to have pilot gigs,  although they had not been used for pilotage since the 1860s

 The three remaining Cornish gigs were the Newquay built in 1812,  and the oldest pilot gig in existence.  To put this into perspective,  this was the year that Napoleon invaded Russia,  so immortalised in Tchaikovsky’s stirring overture. The Dove built in 1820,  and the Treffry, built in 1838.   All three were built by William Peters,  and it was with the Treffry that he had his finest hour.

Specially ordered by the Treffry company of Newquay,  to be the fastest gigever built,  the Treffry was the longest gig the Peters family had ever built,   at 32 feet,  but with a beam of 4 foot ten inches,  thus making her not only one of the longest,  but one of the narrowest.  It is said that, when completed by her builders,  the Treffry was thought to be their finest efforts, and so pleased were they of their own workmanship that they refused to paint her, instead polishing her with linseed oil.  In those days, these specially built gigs, were launched with some ceremony,  their crews wearing top hats and red jackets.  On her first row,  she passed a warship in Falmouth Harbour and it is said, that the captain ordered his ensign to be dipped in salute.

She indeed proved to be a very fast gig, and when the Cornish Pilot Gig Association was seeking a standard measurement for gigs, to ensure fairness in competition, it was the lines and proportions of the Treffry that were chosen.  Every modern racing gig can therefore trace its lineage back to this nineteenth century work of maritime genius!

The Newquay also has a very interesting history, as she was originally to have been one of three gigs,  destined to be shipped to Bassein in Burma.  However transport could only be found for two of them,  so the gig that was to be later named Newquay after the port where she was based,  remained in Cornwall. Whether the two gigs that went to Burma, still survive, is a question that many gig rowers and Cornish historians, including myself, would love to know the answer to.  It is known that the two gigs were still in use in 1937, so had survived at least 125 years.

Racing continued in Newquay until the outbreak of the First World War, but it was not until 1921 when Newquay Rowing Club was set up and racing started again.

The Second World War saw the gigs used by cadets for training, and this prevented them from drying out.  So when the club was reformed again after the war in 1947,   the gigs were still seaworthy.   In the 1950s rowing in Cornwall was again on the increase,  and new clubs were forming.   However this did not involve gigs,  but smaller 15 foot skiffs and 18 foot flashboats,  with just the occasional visit to Newquay to row the old gigs. With this interest the CornwallRowing Association was formed.   A group that still governs racing of these smaller rowing boats today.

In 1953 RH Gillis from Newquay Rowing Club,  received a letter from Tresco in the Isles of Scilly,  asking if the club wished to purchase the gig Bonnet.   A couple of club members went over and inspected her,  also finding two others the Golden Eagle on Bryher and the Slippen on St Agnes.  It was decided to buy all three,  and they were shipped back to Cornwall and refitted.   The following year the gig Shah,  also from St Agnes,  was also bought,  for the princely sum of £35.   These gigs took part in races against the existing gigs, and were saved from the fate of so many others at that time.

Two gigs were also brought from Scilly to Padstow, in the 1950s,  but these did not fare so well as those that had been bought by Newquay.  The Zelda was damaged beyond repair when a lorry backed into her on the quay, and all that remains of her now,  adorns the wall of the Pilot Gig restaurant, in Hugh Town St Marys. The Gypsy survived until 1964 when she was burned.

It is fair to say,  that without RH Gillis and Newquay Rowing Club, gig racing as a sport,  would have died, and the old gigs which we now treasure would have suffered the same fate as the Gypsy and so many others.

In the 1960s Newquay Rowing Club had lost many of its rowers to National Service,  and with seven gigs and not enough rowers,  in 1963 the Shah and Bonnet were loaned back to the islands, and the following year the Golden Eagle was sold back.   On Scilly there was beginning to be an interest in gig racing again,   so much so that in 1967 a new gig the Serica was built.

The surviving old gigs

Newquay              1812

Dove                    1820

Bonnet                 1830

Slippen                 1830

Treffry                  1838

Golden Eagle        1870

Shah                     1873

Klondike              1877

Czar                     1879

Sussex                  1886

Campernell           1895

All but three of these gigs are still raced regularly.  If you have ever visited the Isles of Scilly Museum on St Mary’s you will have seen the Klondike, rigged for sail in the main hall, sadly probably never to race again. The Campernell,  being built for cargo carrying rather than speed, would not be competitive, and I believe the Sussex is awaiting restoration.

The racing circuit has expanded in recent years, moving outside of the Cornish heartland into Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and most notably into the Netherlands  and  IOW.   From the 13 Historical gigs left in 1956,  there are now 179 Wooden Gigs registered with the CPGA,   plus the Scilly Gigs  and 112 GRP Training Gigs.

There are a number of pilot gigs in the northeast USA, but I have not included these in this guide. These gigs are not constructed to the CPGA standard measurements, and tend to be built using different timber from the standard narrow leaf elm.  However the Malcolm G is built to the standard Treffry plans,  and proved to be a racewinner in her home country.

In the last decade the GRP training gig has emerged,  and today most gig clubs have invested in these gigs. While there was some concern that the advent of the GRP gig,  would reduce the numbers of traditional wooden gigs being built,  the opposite seems to have occurred.   With new clubs being set up each year and more established clubs purchasing new racing gigs.