I have to admit to knowing very little about pilot gig rowing in terms of its history and popularity, and I’ve really enjoyed discovering more about it for the purposes of this blog post. My main source of information has been Andrew Brown, Chair of the Clevedon Pilot Gig Club, since its inception. I also know several club members, some of whom went for a trial session with little or no expectations of enjoying it and are now true aficionados.
According to the GigRower, “The Cornish Pilot Gig is a fixed-seat, six-oared rowing boat. It is built of Cornish narrow leaf elm and measures 32 feet (9.8 m) long with a beam of four feet ten inches.”
I was searching for diagrams to show the structure of a pilot gig when I came across a Youtube video of the building and launching of the Clevedon Pilot Gig Club’s first gig – ‘Watch and Pray’. What could be better?
Modern racing pilot gigs are replicas of the original pilot gigs, which date back to the 17th century and evolved along the Cornish coast and the Isles of Scilly. Navigating cargo ships into small harbours in unfamiliar waters was often treacherous, and the visiting ships would employ local pilots to guide them safely into port. It was a tough existence and extremely competitive; the pilots would race to the ship, and the first there won the right to pilot her into the harbour and would receive the fee. Winners also earned the job of repairing or servicing the boat during their stay. There was nothing for the runners-up!
As speed was of the essence, every time a boat was built, it would be tested against others. Their particular shape with a low draft made them strong and fast, and they were also used for smuggling and are recognised as one of the first shore-based lifeboats that went to ships in distress, with recorded rescues going back as far as the late 17th century.
This competition among the pilots led to the modern-day sport of gig racing, which boasts its own Governing Body, Cornish Pilot Gig Association, (CPGA), a friendly international rowing community of 88 clubs and over 8,000 active gig rowers.
All modern racing gigs are based on the Treffry, built in 1838 by William Peters of St. Mawes, and still owned and raced by the Newquay Rowing Club. It was Newquay who set up the first Pilot gig racing club in 1921. The Association’s Standards Officer is responsible for measuring every gig at least three times during construction to ensure that it conforms to the Standard set by the organisation. Gigs have to conform to the exact specifications of the Treffry; otherwise, they are not allowed to part in competitive races.
I asked Andrew about the history of the current Clevedon Pilot Gig Club. He told me how it had been inspired after enjoying a few taster sessions with Bristol Gig Club in the Bristol Docks, and a short time later, a small group consisting of six enthusiasts met at The Royal Oak on Copse Road in Clevedon and agreed to form Clevedon Pilot Gig Club or CPGC for short. This was the first fixed-seat rowing club in Somerset. A Mission Statement was drawn up, and other volunteers were recruited to form a Steering Committee to take the project forward with the aim of raising funds to build a gig to race under Clevedon’s colours.
The Club was officially launched to the Clevedon public on July 4th 2009, when Bristol Gig Club came to Clevedon with their gig, Young Bristol and rowed off the beach, generating considerable interest and enthusiasm.
The Club applied for membership of the CPGA and was voted in at their AGM in January 2010. Fundraising gathered pace, which enabled the Club to commission its first gig, built by Win Cnoops at the Underfall Yard in Bristol. At that time, less than half the money needed had been pledged, but this leap of faith was rewarded by people becoming shareholders and the Club securing a grant from Sport England to purchase all the necessary equipment to go with the gig itself. Meanwhile, support continued to grow, Clevedon Sailing Club agreed to allow the Club use of their seafront headquarters, and Bristol provided valuable training experience in the Harbour. Several other ‘local’ Gig Clubs offered sea rowing assistance, particularly Lyme Regis and Ilfracombe.
Following a five-month build, Watch and Pray was launched on March 12th 2011, by the Lord Mayor of Bristol and blessed by the Reverend Noel Hector from Clevedon at a ceremony at Baltic Wharf. One week later, she was rowed home to Clevedon, where she was welcomed by a large and enthusiastic crowd on the slipway and then moved to her new home on the Pier.
Then on Friday, April 29th, Watch and Pray, alongside 130 other gigs, took part in her first race at the 2011 World Gig Championships in the Isles of Scilly. The team consisted of 13 members – 12 men and 1 woman, Emily Tolchard, who rowed with Bristol but in Clevedon colours.
As a result of a growth in membership and demand for regular rowing, the Club’s fleet expanded almost as quickly. They purchased the ex-championship winning racing gig Mary Newman, now called Blackbird in 2012; the wooden training gig Odessa (which was later sold to Portishead Gig Club); a smaller flashboat (later that year); plus three new glass fibre training gigs, Churngold, Ladye Bay and Finzel acquired in 2013, 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Current membership at the Club is approximately 80; it has been higher, but a dip was inevitable with clubs now established in Weston-super-Mare and Portishead. The gender balance is 55% women and 45% men, which is unusual for most mixed sports but is mirrored throughout gig clubs.
I was curious as to the age profile, which is as follows:
Andrew explained that although there isn’t currently a Youth Section, there has been in the past, and it is something they would like to re-establish. Providing rowing opportunities for young people and encouraging younger members is one of the key tenets of the Club’s Five Year Development Plan.
To this end, they are hoping to start an after-school Club at Clevedon School in September, leading to indoor student regattas. They have six rowing machines in a small unit at the school, which members use for evening and weekend training. These are available for students and staff to use during the day. Any 16-year-olds who become interested will be offered a free chance to join the Club. Family membership is £225, and individual adult membership is £150, although you can take out a Summer membership for £100.
Family membership has been very popular over the years. When I interviewed Nic Comrie for a Humans of Clevedon feature in 2019, she spoke very passionately about the club where at the time of the interview, she and her boys were members. Rowing in the Ladies’ B crew, Nic was also the cox for the Clevedon Men’s B, which meant keeping six men in line, including one of her sons!
Is it for you? I asked Andrew if he agreed with one member’s description of the club as an all-inclusive family club, which he did. They have members from all backgrounds and of all ages and abilities. He added that there is a blind rowing club connected with the Newquay club, and Help for Heros have crews of ex-servicemen who have lost limbs and/or have mental health issues.
If you’d be interested in joining, the Club rows regularly all year round on Monday to Thursdays evenings and at weekends in Bristol Docks, but whenever the tides and weather allows they row from Clevedon seafront. Regular Learn to Row (L2R) sessions allow new rowers to learn how to row and get involved in the sport
Another crucial priority for the Club, which Andrew described as perhaps the most important non-rowing issue, is securing a long-term base. They are working with North Somerset Council to find a suitable location for a gig shed to store two heritage racing gigs and equipment, all of which is at present out in the open with bits and pieces scattered across members’ garages. Rain and winter temperatures do not impact on the gigs, but hot weather can do considerable damage.
The impact of obtaining a base will be transformational for the Club as a few of the semi or retired members and ex-rowers will be able to meet up to do any maintenance and maintain friendships etc. Andrew explains that the Club have a duty to look after their gigs for the next generation. The Club’s second wooden gig, renamed Blackbird, won the World Championships 2000 – 2005 when owned by Caradon, so it deserves looking after.
I was interested to know what competitions the Club had been involved in. They have participated in the World Pilot Gig Championships, hosted by the Isles of Scilly every year during the first May bank holiday. They also participate in day and weekend regattas both locally and further afield, where the club gets a chance to test itself against other clubs.
The Club is currently training for the second-largest event in the pilot gig rowing world, the Newquay Championships, in September, which will give them a few weeks of training time ahead of a great weekend of racing and fun.
All the best with the training, and fingers crossed that you find a base very soon.