Clevedon rowers to recreate historical race to land a pilot on a ship

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Two crews from Clevedon Pilot Gig Club are set to race to transfer a pilot to the Matthew just off the coast of Portishead. This will be the first time this has happened for at least a century, if not two.

With the support of the Cornish Pilot Gig Association (CPGA), the club has been working with Bristol Pilots Ltd and the ‘Matthew’ to plan the event which will take place on Weds 31st May. On this day, the Matthew will be transiting from Sharpness to Bristol and requires a pilot for passage through the Avon Gorge.

Each boat will be carrying a Bristol Pilot and the first pilot to reach the Matthew will board the ship and guide it into Bristol. The day will take the sport right back to its Cornish roots when pilots fought to be first to make it to an incoming vessel. If successful, they and their crew would get the job, and the pay, for bringing the vessel safely into port. This fostered a culture of racing between pilot crews which lead to the modern-day sport of Cornish Pilot Gig racing.

Locally, the month of May bears strong significance. Records of pilotage out of Pill go back to 1497 when barge master James Ray was appointed to pilot John Cabot’s Matthew at the beginning of its historic voyage to the New World. That voyage departed in May 1497, making this month the 520th anniversary.

Clevedon’s Men’s Captain, Scott Ferrier said “As a club, we attend many races and events throughout the South West, though none are quite like this. It will be a privilege to use the gig boats in the manner for which they were originally intended.

This is an extremely exciting opportunity to recreate history and locally raise the profile of this fantastic sport. It is one of the fastest growing in the UK and should this race be a success we are planning on making it an annual event in our club calendar.”

“Thanks to Paul Wells and the Ruby D for providing a safety boat for the event.”

For more information about the sport and how to have a go please visit

Update 30th May: The 2 gig boats will leave Bristol docks at approx. 11.15am and will row up to Pill for approx. arrival of 12.30pm where they will moor up and wait until race start. The race will start approx. 2.45pm

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4 Comments on "Clevedon rowers to recreate historical race to land a pilot on a ship"

  1. John Hicks

    The words ” for at least a century” may be correct, but “if not two” certainly are not. Apart from the many unrecorded races to put pilots on vessels which must have occurred off the Isles of Scilly during the heyday of Scillonian pilotage in the mid-19th century there was at least one as late as 1911 between the Elaine and the Dolly Varden to put pilot Osbert Hicks on the Roche Castle. It is recorded in my book “An Abolute Wreck” at page 162, quoting from the Islander magazine.

  2. Phil Oldroyd

    Poole Gig Rowing Club did this last year (2016) with the ‘Lord Nelson’ in association with the Jubilee Sailing Trust in Poole Harbour. Photos available on request.

  3. Tony Healey

    We’re obviously aware there’s a certain amount of uncertainty on dates and history over this hence our “hedging our bets” with the “least a century maybe two” statement. We’re more than happy to be corrected.

    We’re obviously also aware that the last time a single Pilot was landed on a vessel wasn’t so long ago. I was inspired to suggest this as an event by the painting of Falmouth’s gig “Energy” landing on the Sedoc in 1998. The last time a “proper” transfer occurred I believe was 1938. Neither of these were “a race” .

    Additionally, this event is a little different from other previous ones in that the Matthew actually requires a Pilot. It’s what explains the slightly odd and awkward timings.

    So this isn’t a demonstration or manipulation, it’s a real pilotage requirement with two qualified commercial pilots landing on a vessel which has requested a Pilot. If we weren’t landing the pilot then a pilot would be being landed via a modern pilot cutter. The fact it’s the Matthew is a happy accident. It could quite easily have been a car transporter.

    We’re also aware as well that there’s a certain amount of conceit in the use of cornish pilot gigs to perform this transfer to a vessel in the Bristol Channel. This would obviously, historically, have never happened. The pilots of Pill developed their own craft for pilotage in the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. This was a vessel which, in its own right, was regarded as the pinnacle of technology for the era.

    Ultimately, this is a great opportunity for us to salute the role of pilots in the Bristol Channel, the voyage of the original Matthew and further the promotion of Cornish Pilot Gig rowing as a sport in the region.

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