Once a lucrative form of employment for seafarers, and now a popular sport, pilot gig clubs are found in nearly every seaside and harbour town throughout Cornwall.
The Cornish Pilot Gig has a long and hard-working history. The historic tradition of gig rowing has been alive in Cornwall since the 18th Century, where there would have been around 200 gigs, sometimes under sail, to be found in use around the Cornish coastline.
Gigs were originally used to transport a ‘pilot’ from land to large vessels in need of specialist navigation to get them safely into port. Whichever gig reached the ship first won the right to pilot her in, plus the pot of prize money. They were used to help larger vessels to navigate a safe passage, to trade with those same ships, to undertake the work of repairing or servicing the boat during its stay and to help rescue those in danger – stranded in remote or dangerous locations or jumping from sinking ships. On occasion, there was little doubt that they were also historically used for smuggling.
A pilot gig is a long, narrow, paddle-powered vessel with 6 fixed seats for oarsmen and helmed by a coxwain. As the pay was so sought after, pilot gigs were made to be as fast as possible, due to each team being desperate for victory. Whenever a new gig was built, it would be tested against other boats in the fleet to ensure it was as agile and streamline as could be. Due to a healthy dose of competitive spirit and an element of sportsmanship, these trial runs became permanent fixtures between crews, and pilot gig racing came into fruition.
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. This competition has been running since 1990, and attracts crews from both the south west of England, across the UK and even internationally. Gig rowers of all ages descend upon the Scillies in droves, with 150 teams entering the championships every spring.
Each boat is connected by materials, builders and design to all the other Cornish pilot gigs; together they form a large family of heritage vessels. Gigs nowadays are created to the specifications of Treffry, a pilot gig that was built almost 200 years ago in St. Mawes. Treffry was crafted by William Peters who declared her to be “his finest gig yet”; she measures 32ft in length and 4ft 10in in beam (width) and is still in use today. It is said that William Peters was so pleased with Treffry that he polished her with linseed instead of painting her.
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.
A brief synopsis of the history of the gig:
1666 The crew of the Royall Oacke are rescued by a St. Mary’s gig after being wrecked on the Bishop.
1790 The Peters family of Polvarth, St Mawes receive an order for a boat to be used for life saving on the north coast of Cornwall. They made a six oared gig and it is thought that this gig was the first Padstow lifeboat.
1796 Ann Glanville is born in Saltash, she goes on to become a waterwoman, supporting her ill husband and family of 14 children whilst becoming self-proclaimed Champion Rower of the World racing in four oared gigs.
1812 The Newquay is built by the Peters for export to Burma but sold instead to Messers W Broad of Falmouth (Lloyds Agents). It was later sold to Newquay. Where she is held in trust to this day.
c1820 The Dove is built; a sleek boat she is fast and a foot longer than the Newquay.
1821 The St. Mary’s gig Horse returns from putting a pilot aboard a ship only to be wrecked on route, 3 crew members drown.
1828 The Bryer gig Venus and St.Mary’s gig Jolly are confined to port by the Preventative Service for smuggling.
c1830 The Bonnet is built by the Peters family and under the pilotage of John Nance said to have made smuggling trips to Roscoff (250 miles round trip) 25 times.
c1838 The Treffry is built for the Treffry Company to coincide with their purchase of Newquay Harbour. She was built to be the fastest gig ever and was the longest gig the Peters family built at 32 foot.
1849 Samuel Tiddy moves to Scilly having served his apprenticeship with the Peters family; he goes on to build the Sultan, the Hope (allegedly the last gig to smuggle from Brittany) and the Leo (probably the last one he built).
1849 Four gigs race at Newquay regatta, Treffry, Dove, Constance(Padstow) and Zoe coming in in that order and sharing prize money of £11.
1866 Gigs racing at Falmouth quarrel about the finishing positions and the race is rerowed. The Fury and Nelly wouldn’t race again having come first and second. The Energy and Little Sally went again and the Energy was victorious.
1875 Members of a crew returning from a cricket match from Tresco to St. Mary’s were drowned when their gig capsized.
1877 At Fowey regatta, Annie of Fowey, the Treffry and the Dove cross the line in that order winning £5, £3 and £2 respectively (the Flying Fish of Fowey dropped out).
1903 The Shah is banned from a race because she is too fast. Instead the St Agnes men try to race the Cetewayo (originally from St. Ives) but she had been left for years and had been overgrown by weeds. She leaked so badly during the race she had to be beached at St Marys
1921 Newquay Rowing club is formed, bringing together the Newquay, Dove and Treffry; previously owned by separate companies.
1925 The Slippen rescues 26 people from the wreck of the Cite de Verdun and the crew receive medals.
1928 A Newquay crew record a time of 6 min 15 sec for one mile and in commemoration a model of the Dove by Francis Peters is presented to Truro Museum.
1929 On the 6th August, the Sussex is used to take a bride to church from Tresco, this gig was often used for weddings and to fetch doctors when necessary.
1938 On the 22nd December, Jack Hicks of St Agnes, is the last pilot to be put aboard a vessel from a gig when he is put aboard the Foremost.
1947 Newquay Rowing Club is reformed after the war and the only known remaining gigs on mainland Cornwall are in Newquay; the Newquay, the Dove, the Treffry.
1953 Newquay Rowing Club purchases the Golden Eagle, the Bonnet and the Slippen.
1954 George Northey, R H Gillis and Tom Pryor go to St Agnes on Scilly to buy the Shah and measure the Campernell (a large gig with a loose thwart; removed carrying coffins), the Sussex, the Zelda, the Queen, the Empress and the Emperor and the remains of the Gleaner.
1954 The Golden Eagle is used to rescue a tourist stranded on Horse Rock, Newquay and is also rowed to Padstow in very rough weather, the journey taking five and a half hours.
1954 The Newquay is repainted, taken on a 2 day journey to London on a tractor and trailer and exhibited at the first International Boat Show at Olympia.
1956 The Golden Eagle delivered a young Breton boy to his fathers boat in Newquay bay in rough seas when no other vessel could weather the trip.
1968 The Serica, Czar and Golden Eagle row from Scilly to Penzance the faster boats taking 9hrs and 47 mins.
The Sussex is rowed from Marazion to Scilly in 9hr 17mins by a crew from Truro.
1970 Seven rowing clubs compete in the first County Gig Championship at Newquay.
1980 The first Ladies County Gig Championship takes place at Newquay.
1986 The Cornish Pilot Gig Association is formed to uphold the specification of the Cornish Pilot Gig.
1987 The Sussex and Newquay race at Henley.
1988 The first Junior Cornish County Gig Championships takes place.
1990 The first World Gig Championships are held on the Isles of Scilly. Winners- Men; Truro, Women; Newquay.
2016 The Cornish Pilot Gig Association has 69 member clubs and a register of over 190 Cornish Pilot Gigs.
2018 The 200th CPGA Registered Cornish Pilot Gig was officially passed and recorded. Member clubs now stand at 71, over 10 counties.