World Pilot Gig Championships
Every year during the first May bank holiday the Isles of Scilly host the World Pilot Gig Championships. In the 1990's this started as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title for an event where some enthusiastic people from Scilly and Cornwall decided to race a handful of old wooden working boats. It has evolved into a weekend long spectacular with several hundred crews competing in a series of races. The crews are mainly based in the South West but the sport is spreading and some teams now come from other parts of the world to compete.
The original races
Pilot gigs were traditionally used for taking pilots out to large vessels that needed a pilot to guide them into a harbour or safe anchorage, as well as being used as lifeboats and working boats to move cargo short distances. When delivering pilots onto ships the gigs would race to be the first on the scene, therefore getting the job and the associated pay packet. Over time they were superseded by more modern vessels and the formalisation of piloting services and the gigs were used less and less.
The start of modern racing
The sport developed on Scilly and in West Cornwall as people resurrected the old gigs and decided to race them for fun. When the original gigs were built they were built for speed and to be stable in the often rough seas. Made from elm and normally with 6 oars and a cox, there was no set design specification and different lengths and beams were tried. Many also had fittings that enabled them to be sailed. On St Agnes there is an old gig called the Camernelle that was built wide enough to carry a coffin.
As the sport of gig rowing developed the specification of the class needed to be formalised to make racing fair. 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. Racing gigs are now a coxed, 32 foot, 6 oared rowing boat made from elm with a beam of four feet, ten inches. The historical gigs are allowed to compete in the World Championships even if they don't meet the class rules but all new gigs must conform.
During The World Championships most crews row four races over two days. Men and women race separately so most gigs are raced by a men's and a ladies' crew. The first race from St Agnes to St Mary's is the longest. All the gigs, about 120, race all together and from the results of this race are ranked for the next. The next three races are from Nut Rock, near Tresco, to St Mary's. In each of these races there are 12 gigs, the fastest two boats move up a group and the slowest two move down.
It all culminates in a spectacular final whilst all the gigs that have raced before 'raft' together in the harbour and cheer the fastest crews across the finish line. What started in the 1990s as a bit of fun has evolved into a very serious sport for some but the tradition of the enthusiastic amateur is still alive and well, particularly amongst those crews who happily finish in the bottom half of the field. If you get the chance to visit Scilly over the May bank holiday come along to enjoy the atmosphere and spectacle, it certainly is a unique sporting event.