Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Revival Of Cornish Pilot Gig Racing 2

Here Tim Koch continues his story from yesterday about his visit to Falmouth Gig Club in Cornwall.

On a very cold day shortly before Christmas I appeared unannounced at Falmouth Gig Club. Founded in 1985, it is one of the top clubs, and the women have won the World Championships ten times. I found the men’s ‘A’ crew about to go out. Their captain, Fergus Muller, invited me to join them and pointed me towards the ‘pilot’s seat’ in the bow of the gig Energy. The cox was his wife, Amelia, herself a champion rower.

All my previous rowing experience had been with fine outrigged boats with sliding seats so I was very interested to find out the differences. Like all rowing when it is done well, the crew made it look easy. Energy moved fast and true, untroubled by the choppy water of Falmouth Harbour (which, including Carrick Roads, is the third largest natural harbour in the world and a fine training ground).

Fergus shows the catch.

Fergus shows the finish.

The real test came when they tolerated me taking over the bow seat for a few minutes. I was slightly overdressed in a tweed jacket and duffle coat but I slipped my brogues under the foot straps and received some quick instructions. The outside hand is held in an underhand grip and the inside hand is close to it. I was told that there was a way of using the legs at the catch despite the fixed seat but that proved too advanced for me. Against all my fine boat training, I was effectively told to ‘lean away from the work’ at the finish. Sadly, this part came easily to me. The wooden Macon oars had no button to stop them sliding through the pins and I found it difficult to keep the blade square at the catch. The result was several crabs as I (quickly) tired but at least there were no ‘boat stoppers’ or broken tholes. I soon handed back my oar and resumed my role as deadweight.

On the return leg the crew showed me a burst of speed. I had read that a very fast gig can do eight knots and I now believe it. These clinker boats may look heavy compared to a sleek plastic four or eight but they do not feel it when rowed properly. A coxswain’s eye view of a Rock Gig Club crew rowing is here. A view from the pilot’s seat of a Bristol crew rowing is here. It also shows an ‘oar toss’, used to make a quick turn.

In Britain, fine boat rowing still has an image problem because of its Oxbridge / Henley / private school connotations. Not so with gig rowing. To quote The Times, in thirty years Cornish Gig Racing has gone from ‘… a moribund sport…… to a thriving competitive pastime, claimed now to be the fastest-growing community sport in the West Country……’ Those of us who are evangelical about rowing must applaud all those who made and continue to make this happen. As they say in Cornwall when something merits approval, “Proper Job”!

Many warm thanks to Tim for a very interesting report!


  1. I'm a rower, and prior to these articles, I had never heard of Cornish pilot gig racing. On several of the websites upon which I've found information, there have been hints of pilot gig racing to be found in the USA, but I haven't found any information as to where specifically. Do you happen to know? If I could by chance find a club, it looks like a lot of fun!

  2. Caleb, when I also did a search for gig racing on the web, I got the same results as you - yes there is gig racing in America, but I have yet to come up with information where this is done. I think the best thing to do is to contact They should know.

  3. There is gig rowing and racing in Massacusetts and Maine. The Hull Lifesaving Museum, Hull Mass, the Saquish Rowing Education Society, Plymouth Mass, Gloucester Gig Rowers, Gloucester Mass, Buzzard's Bay Rowing Club, Fairhaven Mass, and Sail MV on Martha's Vineyard. There is gig rowing open to the public with Come Boating! in Belfast Maine, and a youth program called Station Maine in Rockland.Vinal Haven and North Haven also have gigs.