Gig Racing on the Dart
What's in a Gig...?
Gig Rowing has exploded in popularity over the last few decades – from a Cornish-only pursuit, there are now Gig Rowing Clubs all over the South West and beyond. But what is a Pilot Gig? How did its design evolve and why is it such a good racing boat?
The first record of a Pilot Gig is in 1666 when one is listed as helping the crew of a stricken ship off the Cornish coast. The fact an open rowing boat was taken out in heavy seas illustrates that this was no ordinary dinghy.
The gigs were designed for the highly competitive world of professional pilotage and in the 18th and 19th Century, especially in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, being a pilot was a dog-eat-dog business. Individual pilots would race to get to the ships needing help, with the first there getting the job and the payment – a pilot who could not get to ships quickly enough would soon go hungry.
Trinity House, which by the 18th Century was in charge of both the safe navigation around the British Isles and pilotage, caused riots in the Scilly Isles when they only gave out 12 pilots licences on an island where at the time up to 300 ships could land in one day. They soon relented, but only increased the number of pilots to 37. This resulted in a ‘black market’ of pilots, as ships knew they could save cash hiring a non-registered pilot. Again, this upped competition and meant that the richest pilot was not necessarily the best one, but the one who could get to the most ships.
And this is where the pilot gig comes in: they were designed to be light, flexible and therefore quick. Crews began to build expertise at how to get their pilot to a ship as quickly as possible – if they didn’t, they too wouldn’t get paid! The design developed to make sure the boats would not break on hard impact or under strain, as they were often rammed into the boats they were chasing. The boats could use sails, but in harbour the quickest way to get out to most ships was to row and so they principally remained rowing boats.
The determined dash by teams of men pulling on the oars to get some pennies to support their families are the origins of today’s World Gig Championships.
The difficult nature of the gig crews’ lives meant that they often looked for other employment – and gig boats became associated with salvage and smuggling, which was rife along the whole of the South West coast. The boats were also associated with the mythical but shocking ‘wreckers’ who would lure ships onto rocks at night to strip them of their cargo for profit, though there is little evidence this was widespread.
It was noted that gig crews often formed impromptu lifeboat crews when ships got into difficulty in heavy seas and many a sailor was glad of these strong teams getting to their stricken vessel in double quick time thanks to their fast and light boats.
The gigs’ bad reputation led to a ban on any pilot gigs being built with more than four oars – because more would have made it hard for Custom’s officials to catch a gig involved in smuggling!
Then in 1829, gig makers in Cornwall appealed to the Crown to change the law as it was reducing the effectiveness of the boats. As smuggling was still a very big concern, their request for eight-oared boats was ignored, but the law was changed to allow six-oared ones, which are the basis for the majority of gigs built today.
The gigs remained virtually unchanged in their lightweight and strong design and continued to do the same job: getting pilots out to boats in need of navigational help.
The last recorded trip by a pilot in a pilot gig was 1938 – but the boats have now gone from strength to strength as pure racers. Dartmouth Gig Club proudly competes around the South West in many competitions, including the World Championships in the Scilly Isles every Spring.
First Published August 2013 By The Dart