If you have been down to the seaside recently, at Lyme Regis, West Bay, Sidmouth or Weymouth, you will almost definitely have seen the water-beetle-like silhouette of a Cornish Pilot Gig out on the water. More and more of my friends are joining the ranks of one of the fastest growing sports; pulling in hundreds of men & women, young & old all over the south west of England, gig rowing is spreading all over the Celtic fringe of Wales, Ireland, Brittany and even as far afield as Bermuda and the Faroe Islands.
Gig rowing is taking the West Country by storm, and having had some experience with Lyme Regis Gig Club, I can definitely see why. On a bright, sparkly morning there is just no better place to be than sitting in a beautiful hand-built wooden boat, pulling out of a picturesque harbour with six other friendly, welcoming and like-minded people.
The boats are simultaneously works of art and efficient machines; designed originally to get a channel pilot out to visiting ships faster than any other boat’s pilot to win the pilot fees, the racing was a natural result of this competition.
Lyme Regis Gig Club was established in 2007, and now boasts 3 wooden race boats (Tempest, Rebel & Black Ven), a plastic practice boat (Revenge), and now also a skiff, called Gale Force, used by the younger rowers. The names are very evocative, celebrating Lyme Regis’ literary, political & geological history, and ‘Gale Force’ is a nod to Gail McGarva, the lady who built the gigs just across the yard from the boat shed in the Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy. Like most clubs, they are actively fundraising for a new boat to allow more rowers to get out on the water, as demand is so high.
A Cornish Pilot Gig is 32ft in length, 4′ 9″ in the beam, and built of elm on oak, all following the pattern of ‘Trefry’, a gig built in 1838, owned and still rowed by Newquay Gig Club. Bridport Gig Club, operating out of West Bay, now have a fleet of three to support their 150 members. Their main race boat is ‘Dagger’, named after the Bridport Dagger, the local rope industry’s nickname for the hangman’s noose. Gig names at regattas are wonderfully evocative – Weymouth’s are very Arthurian, and local cliffs, rocks and lighthouses often feature, for obvious reasons!
Weymouth Gig Club has a very different origin to the others: on 22nd September, 2000, a young Weymouth man called Tristan Douglas-Johnson went to the Southampton International Boat Show and was tragically killed by an out-of-control, unmanned RIB. A group of his friends decided the best way to honour his memory was with a boat, and two pilot gigs were built by funds raised by his family and friends. This tragic beginning has become a happy, active and competitive club, now boasting 4 gigs and an active competitive and social life.
Along our coastline, Sidmouth, Portland and Exmouth also have clubs, and competitions are held all over the south coast, with races ranging from sprints of just a mile or two to endurance races such as the 25 mile Eddystone Challenge.
Rowing in general has a reputation for requiring fitness of almost masochistic proportions, and whilst it’s true you won’t get into an A Crew without a serious input of blood, sweat & tears, gig rowing is truly a sport for everyone, with club rowers ranging from primary school children to people well into their seventies. Clubs are very inclusive and welcoming, and the atmosphere at regattas is fantastic, especially once the racing is over and the bars are open! Most have off-the-water fitness opportunities; Lyme Regis has winter circuits classes and ergo (rowing machine) sessions, and Bridport uses the Leisure Centre a lot for things such as spinning classes exclusively for the gig club, so even if you don’t row, you can still get fit, make new friends and feel part of a great team. New rowers will usually be offered a taster session or two before they have to join, and Bridport have a comprehensive ‘Learn to Row’ programme covering everything including safety, launching & recovering the boat etc.
It is not all dolphins & rainbows: standing thigh-deep launching a gig on a cold February morning when the rest of the world is still in bed is not for everyone, but once you’re out, it does make you row harder, and the coffee afterwards is the best ever! I had to stop because of family logistics but I had definite pangs at Lyme Regis Regatta today, so will be back for more next year without a doubt.
If you love the sea, try it. If you have rowed before, try it. If you’ve never rowed, try it. If you want to meet some lovely people, try it. If you love stunning scenery and peace and quiet, try it. If you love working so hard your muscles are crying, try it. If you like a bit of healthy exercise in the fresh air, try it. If you are young, old, male, female, sporty, sociable, competitive or chilled out, try it. In short, look up your local club, give them a ring and try it!