The University Boat Race & Cornish Pilot Gigs

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The 163rd University Boat Race will take place on April 2nd 2017.

What have Cornish Pilot Gigs got to do with the  1st Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race in 1829?

Well, you may think the boats in these pictures are our current Cornish Pilot Gigs (CPGs), which are of course replicas of the Treffry, built by Williams Peters in St Mawes in 1838, but in fact they are replicas of the boat used by Oxford in the first Oxford & Cambridge University Boat Race (OCUBR) in 1829!

There have always been very strong links between boat builders around our coasts and those along our main rivers, and apprentices were regularly exchanged between Oxford and Cornwall.

Oxford won that first boat race easily, and amazingly the original boat still exists today, and can be seen hanging in the River & Rowing Museum at Henley.   She was built for Balliol College in 1828 by Stephen Davis of Davis and King Boat Builders, Oxford.  Stephen Davis was a Cornishman, and clearly already had experience of building Cornish Pilot Gigs, so perhaps the likeness is not surprising.

Copyright Penny Chuter

The Oxford boat was of course built for an 8-man crew, and for racing on the river at Henley where the worst conditions would be a “short-chop” as opposed to a big Cornish swell.  She was therefore longer, narrower and lighter than a CPG, but otherwise the construction methods were identical.

She was 45’4” long (CPG = 32’); 4’4” wide (CPG = 4’10”), and weighed 182Kgs (CPG = 356Kgs).  Her planking was Quebec Yellow Pine, a much lighter wood than Cornish narrow-leaf elm, and the ribs and timbers were of oak.  She did have a pilot thwart, but with only one knee support on each side, so clearly this was included for laterally strengthening rather than to support a passenger!  Note that the stroke rower’s oar is on the starboard side as for CPGs.  This was traditional for all rowing crews, sea and river, in the mid-19th century, although current sliding-seat crews are normally stroked on the port side these days, although they don’t have to be!

The year 2004 was the 150th anniversary of the first Boat Race, and it was agreed to commemorate this with a race between two crews of “old blues” using a pair of replicas of the 1829 Oxford boat, since the original Cambridge boat has not survived, and little is known of her design.  Mark Edwards at Richmond Bridge Boat Yard was commissioned to build the replicas, and the pictures included are of these two boats.  They are kept afloat at the Eton Dorney 2012 Olympic Rowing Course, and are used regularly for teaching school children to row, as a precursor to them rowing in sliding-seat boats!

Oxford Blues in replica boat 2004 150th anniversary race. Copyright Penny Chuter

Photo above showing Oxford & Cambridge Blues training around the time of the 150th Boat Race Anniversary event in 2004.

The replica boats were built identical to the original Oxford boat, including the use of the same light wood for the planking. However three modifications were made, mainly due to the fact that the oarsmen in the 2004 race would be much heavier (14 stone instead of 11stone); much taller, and the 2004 race would be on the potentially much rougher current course in west London.

Due to the increase in crew weight, the metal stays used to support each seat in the original were replaced with a central wooden girder running the full length of the boat. Due to the increased height of the rowers, the thwarts were set slightly further apart to give each rower more state room.  Also, the traditional Thames foot-board and slots (which were one of the few differences to CPGs), were increased from 4 to 5, and also leather straps were added.

Finally, stainless steel plates were bolted to the gunwales to allow modern pins with swivels and small “backstays” to be installed, (which is what the rowers for the 2004 race were used to).  However, close inspection will reveal that these ”modern” additions can be removed, and underneath you can see the normal raised sill into which the traditional Thames tholepins can still be fitted.

So our heritage and sport can be proud that a Cornishman built the first Oxford boat used in the most famous rowing race in the world, and that its design and construction is based on, and closely resembles our current Cornish Pilot Gigs.

Penny Chuter
Flushing & Mylor PGC – April 2017

Update: These boats have since been repainted and were used by Cornish Pilot Gig Rowers in another race along the University Boat Race Course on April 2nd 2017.  More details here.

Photos copyright Penny Chuter


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