More than two hundred years ago men would race out to sea in fast, slim wooden boats, rowing flat out to be first to reach an incoming ship and win the fee to pilot it into harbour.
Today, Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing thrives as a sport with clubs all around the South West, including Lyme Regis and Bridport .
Peter Smith took to the high seas at West Bay with rowers bidding for places in the men’s first team at the forthcoming world championships in the Isles of Scilly this month.
On a chilly Sunday morning I clambered into the 32-feet-long Bucky Doo, (the club’s original fibre glass gig) along with six hardy rowers and a cox and we made our way out of the harbour entrance and into the open sea. Some distance behind followed Blaez, (the Celtic translation of “wolf”, the original name of this 32-foot boat made from elm on an oak frame) with a mix of male and female crew.
Soon we were riding straight into the increasing wind and waves approaching half a mile off shore — all very well but being at the front I was getting there first, unwittingly providing shelter for bowman Dave Thomas. At the stern, cox Rob Shopland barked orders as the team gritted teeth and heaved the 10-feet-long oars through white-topped walls of water, urging effort and rhythm from his men.
‘East Cliff was shrinking in the distance as we rode the waves’
“How are you finding it?” he called. East Cliff was shrinking in the distance as we rode the waves. “Up and down”, I replied, “but I didn’t want an easy ride!”
We returned to harbour and practised starting drills, watched by intrigued visitors on land. “Races are normally run on a kite-shaped course”, explained men’s rowing captain Kevin Batchelor, “so we’re tested in differing wind and tide conditions”, justifying the range of rowing I witnessed.
“Not everyone’s in it for racing, many are ‘social rowers”, said Jan Thorne, the club’s general rowing captain, revealing how the club started from a meeting of about 50 people back in 2007. Now with 130 members, some row a few times a week (weather permitting), others occasionally throughout the year. Fitness sessions are held at the Sir John Colfox School during winter, replaced by evening rowing when light permits.
“Anyone who does this sport needs to be able to swim 50 metres, be reasonably fit and strong enough to heave the boats [weighing about 700kg] back on their trailers for return to their new home”, she added. Previously kept at the Old Gravel Yard, Bridport Gig Rowing Club’s new boathouse is in the redeveloped toilet block behind the Salt House (soon to be renamed The Watersports Centre), a structure shared with the local canoe club.
It’s also where I came across Dagger, which cost members £25,000 four years ago. It was being refurbished by Alan Pinch ready for the Three Rivers races at Saltash, and will be the club’s lead racing boat in the Isles of Scilly championships.
So what’s the difference between gig rowing and the Varsity boat race or Olympic rowing? Jan says: “Sliding Seat! They stay more upright through the whole of the stroke and tend to ‘dab’; they mainly row on rivers and they row hands into the chest. They don’t face waves. Gig rowers’ strength comes from legs. Knees are bent at 120 degrees then you push back through the legs. You lie back at 45 degrees while the boat glides.”
But despite the difference, there is one man who she finds inspirational. “Sir Steve Redgrave is awesome, I’m sure his kind of rowing is as difficult as this is.”
West Bay is holding is own regatta is on 21 June. The club will be hoping for better conditions than in 2014 when 16 boats were turned away after the event was cancelled due to bad weather.
For more information on Bridport Gig Rowing Club or joining go to www.bridportgigclub.org
For more information, visit www.lymeregisgigclub.com.