Gig Rowing in a Scilly Style
If you visit the Isles of Scilly, watching the pilot gig racing is a must. Teams practice twice a week and much more as the World Championships approach. These are held annually on Scilly and attract teams worldwide. In the run up to this year’s event we jumped in a boat to discover for ourselves some of the excitement and tradition surrounding the sport…
Gig Racing on the Isles of Scilly
It’s mesmerising. The beat of the oars, the rhythm of your body. Back and forward. Forward and back.
It’s exhilarating. The lap and lull of the waves. The count of the cox. “One, two, three, four.” Humans taking on the Atlantic. And winning.
It’s traditional. We stand in the deck shoes of boatmen going back to the 18th century; steeped in history, swept up by nature, at peace with the tide and wind.
The traditional Scilly Sport
Some traditions are more traditional than others. Look around you when you visit a new place and you’ll see the outward signs of inward traditions engrained deep in the area’s history and DNA. Cut into the trees and count the circles of heritage. Speak of the tradition and you’ll hear it answer you in a local accent. And if all else fails, check out the sepia images on the walls of the local pub; barometer of the past in a pint glass.
You don’t have to look far to see the signs of Pilot Gig Racing in Scilly. Walk down the main street of St Mary’s and you can’t miss the wooden noticeboards. Look out into the bay Wednesday and Saturday evenings any time of the year and you’ll see the teams out practising. Stand at the tide line and you’ll hear the crack of wood on wood and the cox shouting instructions.
And so it always was. Going back to the late 18th century. But not for sport. Gig racing was bigger than sport back then; it provided a livelihood for local boatmen. Pilot boats guided sailing ships to shore. They were particularly prolific on the Cornish coast where harbours were often too small for the ships to anchor.
Back then there was an industry of people building and sailing the 32 foot work boats that had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of the aggressive Cornish waves, yet fast and lithe enough to beat the other gig boats. Because the first boat to the scene was the boat that scooped the job and the wages. Each time a new gig was built it was tested against the others and slowly over the century a tradition of racing evolved. It was only a matter of time before the World Pilot Gig Championships would formalise racing and bring it to wider attention.
Ready for the World Championships
In modern days there are more than 100 gig racing clubs across the globe, many based on the South and South West Coast. This year is the 26th championships. The first, in 1990, sported 19 boats and this year 145 are due to compete.
“They come from America, Holland, Ireland, Wales. We have a Help the Heroes and a partially sighted crew,” says St Mary’s rower Dee Williams.
This year could be a breakthrough year for the dedicated women in the St Mary’s ‘A’ Team. They were bridesmaids last year and have high hopes of grabbing the top spot this time around. Gig racing is hard and not for the lazy. The traditional wooden vessels might look beautiful as the six oarsmen or oarswomen move to one beat out on the blue, blue bay near Hugh Town on St Mary’s. But it’s backbreaking effort and more than a little sweat goes into it.
“It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do,” says Helen Pearce, one of the St Mary’s team. “By the end of the race you’ll feel like you could quite comfortably be doing anything else in the universe than what you just did. Your lungs burn. Your head is throbbing, every muscle aches and you’ve got blisters.” I ask why they do it. “Because we like it. It’s really good fun.”
And I can see that it is. It isn’t just a sport. It’s a lifeline and passion on islands that can feel cut off and closed down in winter.
“Gig rowing is one of the team sports people have had the opportunity to do at some point in their lives. It’s got a bit of heritage to the islands as well. People grow up in school doing it. Family do it,” explains the Cox Bec Campion. On the boats there is a sense of camaraderie and everyone pulling together.
“There’s also a lot of time spent in the Mermaid afterwards or any of the off island pubs.” laughs Helen.
We take the plunge
We have a go. Take the oars. Push off. They are gentle on us. The cox is encouraging rather than shouty. The other rowers slip into our pace. We crawl past yachts and out towards the Atlantic, the same island setting sea where the keenest of rowers have started or ended transatlantic crossings, often waved off or home by a gig or two. It is relaxing and fun. I know we are not racing. There is no other boat out, it is not a competition. But we get a feel for it. The kids have a go and Matthew surprises himself with a hidden talent. I clunk the oars around and hit Helen over the head but no one minds. You just know their training is not like this!
We aren’t out long. The day is done and this team have already put their backs in to training today. In the run up to the World Championships they grab every spare moment to practise. They are excited about the event which is hurtling towards them like a gig boat in pole position.
“You see all the boats lining up in a beautifully big arc and then obviously everyone starts at once, the flag goes down and you hear a big DUNK. It’s exhilarating. It’s lovely.” says Helen.
“The first stroke…the oars clunk against the bolt pins. It’s like a zylophone.” says Kylie Carter.
“But a bit more aggressive.” Helen adds and they all laugh.
“Have you ever been horseracing? When you are in the grandstand and can’t see the horses but feel their hooves, it’s as exhilarating as that,” explains Dee Williams. “Taking part and watching it’s totally amazing. I wouldn’t ever want to not do it.”
The 26th World Gig Racing Championships take place on Scilly 1st-4th May. There are 145 teams signed up for it. The population on the islands is said to double or even triple during this time so if you plan to go make sure you book ahead. See our post on the islands, “Is this Britain’s Best Kept Secret?“, for details of how to get there and suggestions for where to stay.
In the run up and throughout the year you can often see the gigs out training on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you are in the area for longer you may want to get involved. Clubs tend to be inclusive, and offer novice nights and fun days for all sorts of ages and ranges and abilities.
If you’d like to get out on the water and see the gig racers practice when you are on Scilly then the Isles of Scilly Sailing Centre is in the boat house next door to the St Mary’s team store and offers kayaking, guided kayaking and other sailing opportunities.