Centuries of history being kept alive today
The Cornish Pilot Gig has a long and hard-working history. In the early 1800’s there would have been around 200 gigs, sometimes under sail, to be found in use around the Cornish coastline.
They were used to help larger vessels to navigate a safe passage, to trade with those same ships and to help rescue those in danger – stranded in remote or dangerous locations or jumping from sinking ships. They would have transported goods and people between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland but also to ferry smuggled contraband ashore.
These workhorses of the sea were naturally expected to move fast about their work and a racing of sorts therefore ensued. The first to get to a ship would reap the various rewards – whether that be the pilotage fee or goods to trade.
Different uses but similar feel
Nowadays they are of course raced merely for pleasure. The rowing techniques most in favour have come and gone over the years, clothing has obviously changed radically and there are now GRP (plastic) gigs available for training purposes and owned by many clubs. As many women as men row nowadays and gig clubs are spreading ever further out of their historical westcountry homeland.
But many aspects of the gigs remain the same. According to the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, the gigs which we see today are “taken from a traditional design… and 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“.
In 1981, Ralph Bird – local gig builder – and other enthusiasts, borrowed a few historic gigs and set up the Truro Three Rivers Race. Within five years, four pilot gig clubs had been established and this led to the Cornish Pilot Gig Association being formed in 1988 with Ralph as President.
Since the 1980’s, the sport has grown and grown, with nearly 150 gigs lining up on the startline at the World Pilot Gig Championships which take place each year on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.
Gig rowing has clearly developed over the centuries to give new and more enjoyable incentives to get out on the water and appreciate our surroundings. But part of the appeal is their still traditional build and appearance. We believe gig rowing will be around for many more years, and possibly centuries, to come.