Regattas past and present
Cornish Pilot Gigs
A defining moment in the revival of interest in Cornish Pilot Gigs was the meeting of early club representatives held in the front room of Ralph Bird's cottage at Carnon Mine on December 5th 1986. It was agreed that gigs built in future would be to a standard measure and that adherence to these specifications would be governed by a new Cornish Pilot Gig Association. Ralph drew up specifications based on the Newquay gig Treffry which had been built by William Peters of St Mawes in the early 19th century and was generally accepted as the best example of the craft. Ralph became president and life member of the association, not only guiding and promoting the movement, but also personally hand-building twenty nine gigs for nineteen clubs based around the coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Such was Ralph's popularity in the world of gig rowing that his funeral, in 2009 at Truro Cathedral, was attended by some thousand mourners, many of them gig rowers wearing, as Ralph had requested, their gig club colours for the occasion.
The photograph below was taken in the creek by Geoff Aver during a celebration of Ralph's life and achievements.
Pilot gigs have a long history as working boats and their application to sport and leisure started with the early regattas.
In 1860 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported the situation regarding racing gigs at Truro Royal Regatta: “ We regret to say that one of the most interesting races this year was wanting, the four oared gigs. If good prizes were offered it would be an inducement for some of the river men to build gigs of a style that would be able to contest with the class of racing gigs pulled on the Thames at Oxford, Cambridge and Newcastle etc. We have as good, if not better men than any of these places and there is no reason why men from our neighbourhood should not get some of the good prizes offered for that class of boats at some of the neighbouring regattas. At Dartmouth regatta for instance a few days ago a prize of £50 was raced for. The people of Truro and its neighbourhood pride themselves on their rowing and few would be found to beat a crew of river men pulling in equal boats. Hitherto our four oared gigs have been limited to 28 feet, whilst those of other ports run from 32 feet to even 40 feet. We have heard it hinted that the committee intend offering prizes for the above class at next years regatta, if such is the case it would be well to let it be known before hand so as to allow ample time for several boats to be built.”
As reported, the traditional river gigs were 28 feet and this was the main class featured in the upper Fal regattas, popularly competing up to the mid 1870s. Thereafter the ever popular working punts and their lighter skiff counterparts became the main classes. These were pulled by three men using two oars and two paddles in the manner of the randan races today. Following the demise of the main gig classes in the 70s, a popular and light hearted event continued in the form of the gig and punt chase. Here the faster but more ungainly gig was set to chase a more manoeuvrable punt, whose crew, if caught were subject to a dunking.
The longer gigs referred to were six oared, those of our modern gig events. The most celebrated gig builder was William Peters of St Mawes and it is testimony to his, and others, skill that many early examples of the craft are still on the water and racing today. Famous early boats include the Newquay, built by Peters in 1812, the Dove built in 1820, Bonnet 1830 and Treffry 1838. It was common at the time to describe the six oar races as “ free for all England” or indeed “ open to all the world” and, from the first, competition was open to far afield and embraced both male and female crews.
A West Briton report in August 1842 described a phenomenon of the day involving the “Amazon Rowers of Saltash”, a group of ladies who competed in distinctive white dresses, caps and ribbons. The report describes; “ A prize to be contended for by amateur rowers, open to all the world, having been offered by the committee of the Le Harve Regatta, our fair named Saltashers, who have recently acquired so much celebrity by beating their opponents at Portsmouth, boldly ventured to seek renown on the French waters and accordingly entered themselves for the stakes. They left Plymouth in the Brunswick for Southhampton whence they proceeded to Harve in the Grand Turk. The Frenchmen, we presume, like the Portsmouth heroes, not willing to risk a defeat by women, and, above all English women, declined the proposed encounter. However a match they must have and at length one was concluded between the Saltash women headed by Anne Glanville, and a boats crew from the Grand Turk. The race was immediately commenced and concluded in favour of the Amazonian Rowers amid the deafening plaudits of 20,000 spectators.” The Saltash team was well known over many years, having raced in the 1836 Falmouth Regatta in a wherry brought down by the steamer "Francis Drake".
The six oared gigs only featured sporadically in the local regattas of the time and much less often than their four oared cousins, however, as the Gazette report had stated, they were more commonly raced in neighbouring ports. In the Newquay Regatta of 1857 they raced over a seven mile course. Coming in first was Treffry of Newquay, second was Circe of Truro and third was Dove of Newquay.
In the following year at the Feock Regatta it was remarked that no six oared gigs competed and the question asked again was, “ why do shipwrights of Devoran and Malpas not build these Gigs.” Possibly it was the case that, for up river work, the four oared gigs were more handy and certainly there were a number of these available, five being entered in that year with the results; 1st Teazer – Allen & Co, 2nd Florence Nightingale – Worth & Co, 3rd Haides – Gatley & Co.
The flame of interest in gigs was continually fanned by the Gazette and of the Truro Regatta in 1861 it was again reported: “ The four oared gig race did not take place this year because there was only one gig in the river fit to race and this was only 28 feet in length whereas those pulled at Dartmouth, Plymouth and Saltash were 32 feet. If the Kea and other of the river men were to build boats to the new description they would no doubt have such prizes offered for competition at this and neighbouring regattas as would be a fair compensation for their outlay. We have heard it hinted that the committee intend to offer a £12 prize for four oared gigs next year which it is hoped will induce the river men to build new boats and the rowing men from more eastern ports to come and contend.”
The exhortations of the Gazette reporter had its effect and by 1863 some expectation had been kindled. On the day it was reported: “ Owing to the large prizes offered for the four oared gigs [not exceeding 32 feet] it was expected that there would be a very numerous entry. In this however there was soon disappointment for notwithstanding the tempting prizes of £15 for first and £5 for the second boat there were only five entries, which in the event reduced to only two as three local boats declined the contest though their occupants were earnestly entreated by the umpires to take their stations. The Pride of Plymouth came in a full ten minutes before the second placed Alexandra. The Pride was a gig built expressly for racing purposes whilst the Alex and all the others were just ordinary gigs.” Clearly the committee's attempt to create racing gigs of four oared craft had failed and so ended Truro's attempt to put Fal rowers on the racing map, it would be another 100 years before Truro crews bothered the scorers of championship races.
Written by Phil Allen