Monday 10 March 2008

Pilot Gig World Championship

In the course of my day job I wrote a piece about pilot gig racing for The Times which didn't get in grr grr so here it is, exclusively online. Local photographer Andy Cox very kindly supplied the pictures.

"A line of boats races across the sea, the rowers stirring up a cloud of spray as they sprint for the finishing line. The World Pilot Gig Championships on the Isles of Scilly is a unique spectacle and the pilot gig is a unique type of boat.
Long and slim, powered by six rowers and steered by a cox, they were developed to take pilots out to ships coming up channel. The first to get their man on board got the fee, so competition was intense.
Pilot gigs have always been raced, but over the last few years interest in the sport has mushroomed. There are over a hundred gig racing clubs, mainly in Cornwall but also in France, the Netherlands, the US and even Australia. But the world HQ has always been the Isles of Scilly where it is the local passion.
Every year the islands host the World Pilot Gig Championship, held on the May bank holiday weekend (this year, May 2-5). More than 2,000 rowers pour off the ferries, bringing over a hundred gigs. Racing is based on the beach at Holgates Green on St.Mary's, where the indefatigable ladies of the island serve breakfast, lunch and tea in ‘the tunnel’, a plastic shelter that becomes the epicentre of the festivities.
The tunnel is the place to be, partly because the money raised from the food is a major boost to gig racing funds, but mainly because it is the focus of the social side. Last year’s Saturday night party was, apparently, a blast.
Kevin Sherris, vice chairman of the championships committee, says the appeal of gig rowing is its inclusiveness. “It’s a very good social sport for both men and women, it keeps you fit, it’s not age related,” he says. The championships have grown with the sport, and are now the biggest annual event on the islands. “In 1989 we had 19 gigs, now we have over a hundred,” Mr Sherris says. “Everyone likes to come here because on the mainland they just go the meeting, row, put the boat back on the trailer and drive home. With 2,000 rowers stuck on the islands for two days, they socialise. The pubs are six deep at the bar.”The most impressive races are the mass dashes on the Saturday morning to establish the seedings. First the women’s crews, then the men’s, line up for the two mile row from St Agnes’ to St Mary’s. The sight of fifty or so gigs at speed is truly impressive.
The handicaps established, the boats then race in heats, leading up to the finals on Sunday. On Monday, crews take a rest from the oars and race under sail. The weather is rarely bad enough to stop racing altogether, though a few years ago a storm delayed rowing for a day and when they finally got out it was very hard work rowing into the wind. Coming back was another matter: “Surfing gigs is good fun,” Mr Sherris says. Another year one gig got lost in the fog, turning up hours later having navigated by the time-honoured technique of rowing until they came to a coast, and following it until they reached the harbour."
More on the Pilot Gig World Championship here.

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