PILOT GIGS OF CORNWALL AND THE SCILLY ISLES

THE PILOT GIGS OF CORNWALL AND THE SCILLY ISLES

The pilot gigs of the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall are totally unique six oared open boats which were used to ship pilots onto ships arriving of the South West approaches to the United Kingdom. This feature actually started as a review of a fascinating book that I found in the bookshelf of a holiday let in Cornwall. Titled : “Azook: The Story of the Pilot Gigs of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 1666 – 1994”. The book, written in a lively manner by Keith Harris ,not only goes into great detail as to how these craft were built specifically for the role of getting pilots out to ships as fast as possible but also explains how they were also ideally suited for many other roles especially as lifeboats, salvage and for smuggling! Unfortunately, the book is out of print and the publishers: Dyllansow Truran were bought by Tor Mark Press following the death of founder Len Truran some years ago. Tor Mark Press advise me that there are currently no plans to re-publish this important record of these remarkable craft. Fortunately I have been able to contact Keith Harris, who not only gave me permission to use content and diagrams from the book for this article but also provided me with valuable additional information.

Read the original illustrated article here.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

I have received some interesting feedback from this feature and I have placed the information at the end of this article. If you have any information / photos that you believe may be of interest to readers of this article please email me via the contact link page.

For up to date information on current gig events visit the Cornish Pilot Gigs website: www.pilotgigs.com

St Mary’s Gig “Slippen” (1830) showing construction detail (Azook)

Early History.

The earliest detailed record of the gig dates from 1666 when gigs from St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles rescued the crew of the Royal Oak which had been wrecked on the Bishop Rock and although there is little other documentation regarding early gigs it is evident that the craft evolved over the centuries into the remarkable craft whose construction and design was perfected in the early 19th century.

To us today, used as we are to the relative comfort of enclosed and heated cutters (but who still suffer some discomfort in bad weather!), an open rowing boat does seem to be a somewhat masochistic craft for the notoriously rough, wet and windy conditions experienced in the Atlantic off the South West approaches. However, history has proven that although competition in pilotage was frequently disastrous for pilots and pilotage it did result in some of the fastest and most seaworthy craft ever constructed, a fact that is borne out by the remarkable numbers of pilot vessels around the world that have not only been preserved but whose plans are still sought out for replicas in the 21st century. The fastest and most seaworthy boats got their pilots out to the ships first and so the boat designers and builders were also in competition to produce fast and seaworthy craft. The comfort of the pilot was not an issue because if he didn’t find a ship or beat his rivals to board it, he didn’t get paid. These were tough times, as indeed it still is for those unfortunate enough to have to earn a living under a competitive pilotage regime!

Why an open rowing boat?

With sailing craft becoming faster and being able to sail closer to the wind it does initially seem strange that the Cornish pilots continued to use rowing gigs but with the prevailing winds being South Westerly the fastest route to incoming shipping was directly into the wind so if a boat could be designed to get to windward faster using oarsmen than a sailing craft tacking then the rowing boat’s pilot would get the job. The gigs did carry masts and sails which could be rigged when conditions were favourable but their design was primarily as a pulling boat since without either a deep keel or centreboard they only sail well off the wind. They were also used in different ways for which the design was ideal. For example, some were towed by larger sailing cruising pilot cutters and just used for the pilot transfer and because many of the vessels that were served were coastal traders, the gigs were used to take several pilots at a time on a short pull out to the local boarding ground. Whether by oar or sail the pilots must have frequently arrived on board extremely wet and bedraggled but in those days hardship was a fact of life for most people and it obviously didn’t do them too much harm because many pilots lived to a ripe old age!As for the gigs themselves it would be natural to assume that these were very solid, heavily built craft in order to withstand the rigours of not just the frequently adverse weather but also the potential for impact damage whilst alongside the ship transferring the pilot. Not so, these remarkable craft were built for speed and were therefore constructed from the lightest materials with many of the traditional strengthening features reduced or eliminated altogether!

Gig Layout plan (Keith Harris)

The lightweight design evolved as a result of experience that too rigid a hull was prone to having the seams open up in a seaway and when alongside a ship a certain amount of thwartship flexibility was also necessary to reduce the possibility of cracking due to impact damage. The construction obviously worked well in practice since there are very few recorded incidents of losses and the fact that so many of the early craft still survive bears testimony to the success of the design.

The Peters Family

As previously mentioned, records of the early gigs are scanty but in the early 19th century a boat builder called William Peters designed a boat that was so efficient that all pilot gigs were subsequently built to that design, either by his descendents or others trained by the Peters family and this design still forms the criteria for the official racing gig specification used today.

William Peters originally established the Peters boat building yard at Polvarth near St. Mawes in 1790 and gained a reputation for building high quality vessels from gigs to schooners. However, at the turn of the century he decided to concentrate solely on gig construction. The reputation of the Peters gigs rapidly gained the attention of the pilotage world and in addition to Cornwall and the Scillies other services ordered them and in 1812 three gigs were ordered for Bassein, in Burma! Of the three gigs ordered, only two were actually despatched to Burma due to lack of space on the ship taking them and the third was subsequently sold to the Newquay pilots who named her the Newquay. The Newquay gained the reputation as being a fast and seaworthy boat and thus established the basic design criteria for future gigs.

*** pic 3 The world’s oldest gig. The “Newquay”, built 1812 (Newquay Rowing Club website)

The Newquay still exists today and is regularly raced by the Newquay Rowing Club and she is believed to be the oldest craft in the world still afloat and being used. Interestingly the other two boats built for Burma were still reported as being in service in 1937 and it is possible that they are also still afloat and working.

The last record of a pilot to be shipped by a gig was Jack Hicks of St. Agnes who was put on board the SS Foremost on December 1938 by the gig Gipsy. Gipsy (or Gypsy as she was subsequently named) was built for St. Agnes pilots in 1858. After World War 2, in common with many gigs, she was left to rot and in 1955was purchased by the Padstow Regatta Committee.

***pic 4 Pilot Jack Hicks. (Azook)

The Gipsy along with another St Agnes gig, the O&M had an interesting history, having been involved in the rescue of passengers and crew of the steamer Castleford that grounded in fog on rocks off St Agnes in 1887. Following the successful rescue of personnel, the Gipsy and O&M returned to salvage the cargo from the ship which included 450 cattle. All 450 cattle were saved and transferred to a small island whilst the salvage was sorted out and a new ship arranged to collect them. During this rescue a bullock’s horn had pierced the hull of the Gipsy which was plugged by a crewman’s sock! When Padstow took delivery of the Gipsy in 1955 they discovered that this hole was still in the planking covered by an original repair patch!

The construction

The early gigs were subject to Government anti smuggling restrictions which limited them to four oarsmen in order that they couldn’t outrun the revenue boats. Four oared boats were obviously inefficient for the pilotage role and in 1829 a group of gig masters successfully petitioned the wonderfully titled Honourable Commissioners of His Majesty King George 1V’s Customs London to repeal the law. Although some pilots and designers felt that an eight oared boat would be ideal, the limit was raised to 6 because no revenue craft would ever be able to catch an 8 oared gig! The “official” pilot gig now used for racing, as classed by the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, is based on Peters’ 1838 gig Treffry which has also survived and again is owned by the Newquay club and is still raced.

Peters’ Treffry is a six oared, clinker built craft constructed from Cornish small leaf elm. The length is 32 feet (9.75m) in length with a 4′ 10″ (1.47m) beam. The thwarts are also lightweight ¾” (19mm) thick and being supported by a central pillar to the keel had a slight upward curve. This was a practical design feature that in addition to tensioning the hull also prevented the thwart from piercing the hull if the boat came alongside slightly heavily. Instead, the thwart would spring upward or, in heavy impacts spring out altogether since they were only lightly secured. The boats are steered by a cox’n using a yoke to the rudder. The depth of the hull from keel to gunwales is around 2 feet (60 cms) and with the crew in place it has a draft of around 12 inches (30cm). The planking is a mere ¼ inch (6mm) thick and this light construction results in a boat which weighs less than 7 cwt ( approx 350 kgs) and thus enables it to be carried / launched by its crew ( six oarsmen plus a cox’n) and also makes it very fast. Gig oars are called “paddles” and when working as pilot boats these were “long and strong” up to 18ft (5.4m) but for racing they are around 14ft (4.2m) and spooned. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7kts but speeds of nearly 10kts have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. Under sail, speeds of 12kts have been achieved. When looking at the construction plan a question arose in my mind as to where the pilot sat in the gig? Keith Harris has advised me that the pilot wasn’t a passenger who lorded over his sweating crew from the stern but would take an oar himself. It was also not uncommon for some pilots, especially the “hovellers” to share a gig and since they can be easily rowed / sailed by two oarsmen, up to five pilots could share the gig in this manner.

***Pic 5 The gig “Mabel” showing the gig’s sail plan (Keith Harris)

Under sail the rig was very simple consisting of a dipping lug mainsail on an unstayed mast with the halyard on the weather side acting as the stay. The mizzen sail was also usually a dipping lug sail where the clew was attached to an outrigger protruding beyond the stern through a hole in the transom (see diagram).

Salvage

Common legend mentions the Cornish and Scillians as “wreckers” who lured vessels onto the rocky shores in order to make a living from the salvaged cargo. Whilst it is possible that some may have indulged in this dubious practice, the nature of the coastline, the storms, strong tides and currents combined with the difficulties in navigating with accuracy unfortunately resulted in plenty of wrecks occurring without the need to resort to “wrecking” practices. However, there is a local Scillian prayer attributed to the Reverend John Troutbeck from the 1790’s which reveals a somewhat irreverent attitude to wrecks which reads: “We pray Lord, Not that wrecks should happen BUT, that if any wrecks should happen, Thou shalt guide them into the Scilly Isles for the benefit of the inhabitants”!It doesn’t come as too much surprise to learn that the Rev’d Troutbridge was later forced to resign for handling contraband!

Another story recounts an old pilot being asked his opinion as to how the number of wrecks could be reduced. His reply was that if they closed the Lloyd’s signal station on the Lizard Head, Captains’ would give it a wide berth rather than navigating towards it to report their arrival! Regardless of the cause, it was the pilot gigs which usually acted as lifeboats and salvage craft attending these wrecks.

There are over 150 detailed documented cases where gigs were engaged in rescue and salvage operations, usually in appalling conditions and at great risk to the crews. Hundreds more would have been considered routine and gone unreported. In many instances the pilots were able to get vessels in distress clear of danger or to salvage vessels after the crews had been rescued and the conditions had improved.

***Pic 6 a gig engaged in salvage (Azook)

The last rescue by a gig was in 1955 when the gig Sussex, from Bryher In the Scilly Isles, assisted in the rescue of the crew of the Panamanian steamship Mando that had gone aground in thick fog. At that time the Sussex was 69 years old and had not been used for 26 years! She was brought into service for this rescue as a result of her shallow draft and the fact that she didn’t have a propeller to become fouled in the weed around the wreck. Reports from the gig crew state that the hull was sound and she took no water in through the seams. The Sussex has had an interesting and varied career since she was constructed from the salvage proceeds of a ship bearing the same name in 1886. Originally built for the men of Bryher, in addition to pilotage duties, the gig was also used for general purpose work such as ferrying between the islands and in 1929 was used as a wedding barge to transport the bride to Tresco. The boat was also involved in many rescues including that of the “T. W. Lawson” and the “Minihaha“. The Minihaha was carrying a cargo of livestock and the salvage involved tying the horns of the cattle onto the thole pins of the Gig so that they could be rowed ashore.

In 1968 restoration work was undertaken by a boat builder and gig enthusiast, Ralph Bird, who fitted a new keel. Following this restoration in 1969 the Sussex was rowed from Scilly to Penzance in the record time of 9 hours and 17 minutes. In 1971 she was badly damaged in a gale and Ralph Bird brought the wreckage and fully restored the boat which he still owns and occasionally loans out to clubs..

Augustus Smith and the Scilly Pilots

The inhabitants of the Scilly Isles in the early 19th century suffered much mismanagement by those in charge of the islands but had survived by running what would probably now be referred to as a “black Economy”! A major upheaval to their lives and lifestyle occurred in 1834 when Augustus John Smith, described as a “gentleman from Hertfordshire”, took up the lease of all the Scilly Isles and set about establishing order through organisation, underpinned by rules and regulations. By making himself Justice of the Peace and Chairman of the Council he became known as “Lord of the Isles”. His form of rule by dictatorship initially made him unpopular but he introduced many reforms such as the introduction of compulsory education for children (the boys studied navigation and the girls net making) which eventually led to successfully raising the living standards of the population. One of his interests was pilots and pilotage.

The history of the Isles of Scilly pilotage is interesting since the position of the islands resulted in a high demand for pilots in the days of sail with three hundred ships recorded as having visited the islands in one day in the early 1800’s. Until 1808 pilots were chosen by the“Court of Twelve” respected citizens who governed the Islands. In 1808a new law placed pilots and pilotage under the jurisdiction of Trinity House. Unfortunately Trinity House had no comprehension of the Scilly pilotage operation and only granted 11 pilot authorisations, all of whom were chosen from St Mary’s. At that time there were 77 working pilots around the islands so it was hardly surprising that riots broke out. Trinity House relented but still only increased the number of authorised pilots to 37!

The predictable outcome was a free for all, whereby pilots continued to work regardless of whether or not they were authorised by Trinity House and the unlicensed pilots became known as “hovellers”. This competition caused disputes and severe hardships for some since the Trinity House pilots had priority and could supersede the hovellers.

Augustus Smith saw the injustice of this illogical system and authorised the unlicensed pilots to continue to work and threatened the Trinity House pilots with eviction from the Islands if they challenged the order. He thus created a fair regime and by the mid 19th century it is estimated that 200 pilots were working out of the islands under his protection. Indeed, such was his concern for some pilots’ welfare that he left one pilot, James Jenkins of Bryher, £300 in his will for “his great distress caused by trinity House refusing to grant a renewal of licenses”. I propose a toast in his memory!

It is of interest to note here that the only Trinity House Pilotage Certificate to cover the whole of the British Isles was issued to a Scillonian pilot called Captain Ashford.

Smuggling

Since time immemorial anybody who had a boat traditionally engaged in a bit of smuggling and the gig men of SW England were no exception! Whilst the legitimate salvage of cargoes provided valuable additional income for the pilots and boat crews, the temptation to engage in a bit of free trade between salvage and pilot jobs was difficult to resist especially since it was enthusiastically supported by the local community and playing cat and mouse with the revenue men was probably as much a part of the off duty entertainment as the regattas! The gigs were not merely confined to working close to shore, they hunted out ships well into the Atlantic and up the channel. The hardships of rowing and living on an open boat for a couple of days doesn’t seem to have deterred them and this endurance would obviously be more bearable if the crew could engage in a bit of smuggling. Consequently gigs made frequent trips across the channel to France. Naturally not many records of these voyages were made but some detail has emerged from those who were caught and fined. One Scillonian pilot, John Nance, made 25 by 250 mile round trips to Roscoff in Brittany in the gig Bonnet and on one occasion rode out a storm for 30 hours by keeping the gig’s head to wind. Bonnet was built in 1830 and was named after an old lady waved her bonnet at the launch imparting her good luck magic on the boat. It certainly didn’t do any harm since Bonnet is still owned by the St. Mary,s gig club and races regularly. In 2006 she was rowed the 60 miles from St Mary’s to Newquay for a reunion.

***Pic 7 Bonnet arriving in Newquay 2006. Photo: Andrew King (sports.webshots.com)

Gigs as Lifeboats
There are many stories, particularly in the Isles of Scilly, where the Gig has been used in preference to the established lifeboat, due to conditions prevailing at the time. A classic example is the wreck of the “Isabo“, an Italian grain ship that foundered on the Scilly Rock in 1927. Grain, floating around the wreck to a depth of two inches, caused the intakes of the Lifeboat to become clogged, and the Gig “Czar“, was sent in and successfully rescued all the crew.

Racing

During the past 20 years gig racing has been one of the fastest growing sports in Cornwall and most waterfront villages and towns now regularly race one or more gigs. Such has been the popularity of the sport that pilot gig clubs are being formed outside the Cornish boundaries, not just in the UK, but all over the world with clubs now established in France, Holland, Ireland, the Faeroes, USA and Australia. The sport is governed by the Cornish Pilot Gig Association which monitors all racing gigs during the construction phase. Every year in May the population of the Scilly Isles doubles as teams from all over the world congregate in St. Mary’s for the World Pilot Gig Championships and this year saw nearly 2000 rowers and supporters participating in the event. The contest was the biggest yet, with a record 103 gigs lining up for the first men’s race and 95 took part in the ladies’ event.

It is fairly natural to believe that pilot gig racing is a recent leisure event and that in the days when these craft were working, boats that the pilots and crews wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to engage in racing. Nothing could be further from the truth. To quote directly from Azook,

“The life of a the pilot was a dog eat dog existence, the first pilot to get to a ship got the job, inevitably when more than one pilot gig spotted a potential job, a race would ensue in order to get the piloting contract.”

The whole concept of the gig design was to beat the competition in this race to get pilots to ships and it was only natural that when a new gig was delivered it would be raced against the existing boats and this, in turn, progressed the development of the design into the ideal boat for all the conditions likely to be encountered. In addition to this practical need for speed, the competition between the boat crews was such that regattas were organised to formalise the races and records of such regattas go back to the earliest days of the 19th century. The whole of the local community would be involved and serious money could be won. In the larger ports the prize money was such that boats would come from all around the coast to participate. Gig crews frequently came from the same families and started rowing almost as soon as they could walk. A remarkable account of a unique regatta race at St. Mawes is recorded in the 1887 issue of The Graphic magazine. At the 1887 regatta someone came up with the idea of a race between veterans and boys where the total age difference was 500 years. They actually managed to find crews with an age difference of 501 years with the boys’ crew having a total age of 79 and the veterans with a total age of 580. Two of the veterans were 90 years old! The Graphic recounts the race thus: “ At the firing of a gun the youngsters dashed off and by a little clever steering and frequent spurts managed to round the first mark about a length ahead, but on coming up the straight, the Old Boys steadied down to a long powerful stroke, soon collared them, then drew ahead and were never caught again.” The Graphic also reports that when the veterans were told that their exploits would appear in the magazine they said that “it would be something to talk about when they were old”.

***Pic 8 The3 oldest gigs (Newquay Rowing Club)

The Newquay Rowing Club owns three of the oldest pilot gigs, namely the Newquay (1812) Dove (1820) and the Treffry (1838). There is a special race dedicated to just these three boats, crewed by the 18 best club rowers and competition is fierce to gain the honour of being chosen as their rew. The trophy is a 7 inch long silver gig which was given to the club in 1922 by Mr. T. A. Reed, a Newquay businessman and great supporter of the Club.

Ladies gig racing.

Nowadays there are almost as many women involved in gig racing as men and again most people would consider female participation in such events as being something that occurred in the late 20th century. In fact ladies gig racing is almost as old as that of the men having been firmly established in 1830 by a remarkable woman called Ann Glanville, who contemporary records describe as “longshorewoman and oarswoman extrordinaire”. Born in 1796 Ann Glanville was part of a large family of “riversiders” from Saltash on the Cornish side of the river Tamar and would have grown up with boats on the river. There are records of women’s races from early in the 19th century and one account states that “Women’s racing in Plymouth Regattas moved from being an object of mirth in 1831 to becoming the chief attraction in 1841. Saltash women led this change and Ann Glanville led these women”.

***Pic 9 Ann Glanville

These women’s’ races were not just novelty events because again serious money was at stake and in 1834 Ann Glanville’s crew won £20, a considerable fortune at that time. Amongst the crew was one of Ann’s daughters since by this time she had 14 children!Two of her sons are recorded as being big men who apparently used their power and skills in naval boat races for wagers that sometimes totalled hundreds of pounds. After the publicity gained by her wins at Plymouth, Ann and her crew, known as the “Saltash Amazons”, became early celebrities and toured Britain and Europe as professional sportswomen at events organised by entertainment promoters. However, their fame was not shallow since they trained hard and when they took on male crews they achieved wins as a result of technique, although they rarely beat experienced watermen accustomed to racing. As well as bringing rowing into the public domain they were early pioneers of women’s rights and having started competitive racing at the age of 27, Ann was still racing at the age of 51. She died in 1880 at the age of 84.

Naturally there is a gig named “Ann Glanville” which was built by Ralph bird in 1989 and is, of course, based at the Caradon pilot gig club at Saltash who were this years men’s and veterans’ world champions.

The latest information

As previously mentioned the world of gig racing is undergoing an explosion in popularity and a very positive aspect of all this is that the building of Cornish gigs is keeping traditional boat building skills alive and order books are full. Should you wish to own one then a new gig with a professional paint finish for racing currently costs around £25,000. A good second hand one will cost around £15,000. I’m actually a bit reluctant to reveal the cost because in my district the pilotage operation is currently being subjected to an “end to end” review and our pilotage manager is looking at new pilot boats to replace a couple of the older boats! Whilst the accountants would love the gig concept, perhaps fortunately for us, these gigs wouldn’t conform to modern requirements but as the price of oil rockets, their green credentials may once again make them the ideal boat for the future!

Azook

In conclusion you are no doubt wondering what the title of the book “Azook” stands for?

Apparently it is an old gig term used by the Newquay gigs and when the coxswain of a Newquay gig wants his crew to pull he calls “Hevva” and when he wants them to pull even harder he shouts “Azook”. Is that my pilotage manager I hear shouting?

As mentioned in the introduction, this feature has been based on the book by Keith Harris and most of the photographs and diagrams are from that book. Obviously this is a very abridged version of the original which contains a vast wealth of not just general information but also detailed histories of many of the individual gigs. If by any chance you are lucky enough to come across a copy in a second hand book shop, snap it up, because I’m sure that you will become as engrossed as I was within its pages.

My thanks to Keith Harris, Ann Curnow-Care, Ralph Bird and Mr & Mrs Bellingham for their valuable help in preparing this article.

“Azook: The Story of the Pilot Gigs of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 1666 – 1994”.

Originally published by: Dyllansow Truran

Weblink: Cornish Pilot Gig Association :www.cpga.co.uk/

UPDATE

Further to the feature on pilot gigs in the Autumn 2007 issue I have had interesting feedback from both working and retired pilots down on the SW peninsular. It would appear that Cornish pilots are or were actively involved gig rowing racing on a regular basis and were also involved in the renaissance of these craft. There is too much information to place within these pages so I have added the responses to the feature on the website. However. of particular interest is a response from Falmouth pilot, Nicholas Martin, whose father, Peter Martin, is the renowned gig builder based in St Mary’s, Isle of Scilly and who is currently building a gig for a club in Holland. Nicholas’ step mother is the niece of the late Tom Chudleigh, another well known gig builder.

Peter Martin was part of the crew on the 1972 Truro to Roscoff adventure, mentioned in the article, rowing the gig“Campernel” and apparently they got within 10 miles of the French coast but turned back because of concerns regarding the port approach in the bad weather. Apparently several quite large vessels got into difficulties in the gale but none of the Campernel’s crew had any qualms regarding riding out the storm in an open gig!

Nicholas himself was involved in gig rowing and racing from an early age and recounts that “when I was 14 I rowed a 10 mile race with a men’s gig crew against all sorts of equivalents of the Cornish gig. The race was from mainland France to Ile D’Ouessant and should have been cancelled due to very strong winds and high seas but the French pressed ahead. During the race the safety boats were busy attending many casualties with red parachute flares going up all over the place. Needless to say the gig performed well, and apart from shipping some water we made very good time and crossed the line first, way ahead of the nearest competitor, although just completing was a success on its own”.

Although Nicholas had to give up racing when he went to sea, he still owns a rowing boat that was specially built for him by his father and Ralph bird.

Sam Guy (Fowey) is also an old gig hand and has a part share in “Golden Eagle” and provided the following update regarding gigs being used to ship pilots “Jack Hicks was probably the last of the Pilots to board a ship from a gig when they were used as the sole means of boarding however, my brother, Roy Guy boarded Richard Branson’s boat from a gig following his Trans Atlantic Blue Riband success. I believe a Falmouth Pilot boarded a yacht off Falmouth from a gig and I boarded a Square rigger, Endeavour, off Fowey from a gig rowed by a girl crew!!!” It is indeed a small world down in Cornwall!

Finally, retired Liverpool pilot, Jim Delacour-Keir, who retired to Cornwall sent me further information regarding the Scillonian pilots and he also enclosed several old newspaper cuttings covering the gig revival.

Frank Peters watches the arrival of the 3 oldest gigs, racing (and winning) against the young upstart Sussex (1886) which had recently been restored by Ralph Bird.

Credit: Falmouth Packet 18/05/1984

One fascinating cutting from the Falmouth Packet newspaper dated 18th May 1984 contained photographs of the return of the gigs Newquay (1812), Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) to the boatyard in St Mawes where they were constructed by william Peters. This was one of the very rare occasions where these historic craft were permitted to leave their home in Newquay and the occasion was in honour of William Peters’ descendent, the (then) 82 year old Frank Peters who was still running the family boat building yard at St Mawes.

FEEDBACK

 

fROM fALMOUTH PILOT: NICHOLAS MARTIN

I enjoyed reading the article and it is great that these wonderful gigs are getting the recognition they deserve.

My father Peter Martin is a boat builder who lives on St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly and is frequently commissioned to build pilot gigs for clubs for Scilly and around Cornwall, in fact his latest order is for a club in Holland. Unfortunately Cornish elm is hard to come by and elm is now shipped in from Scotland, Holland and France. Despite being a Falmouth Man my father moved to Scilly when he met my step mother and has since then been very busy. My step mother’s uncle Tom Chudleigh was a well known for building gigs but since his death my father is now the only boat builder on Scilly and has built the largest boat on Scilly for over a 100 years.

I believe that my fathers reputation for being an excellent gig builder stems from the fact that he is a very successful rower and for years was part of a team that has won many county championships. Although the regulations for building a gig are very restricted there are certain tolerances and his knowledge of rowing them certainly gives him an edge.

My father has been involved in numerous trips on gigs further a field than the usual weekend race and as a young man in August 1972 rowed the St. Agnes gig ‘Campernel’ from Truro to Roscoff. Unfortunately the weather worsened and when within five to ten miles of the French coast the skipper of the escort boat felt that the weather had further deteriorated and was concerned with the approach to the port and they turned back. When they arrived in Falmouth they were met by lots of concerned relatives after hearing on the news of several vessels that had met difficulties in the channel due to the poor weather. My father tells me that the performance of the gig is testament to their reputation for seaworthiness. He also reflects that the original coxswain who was a well known man on the Falmouth waterfront a ‘Quay punt man’ for numerous years refused to go as he felt that they were in for a blow but as the it was a beautiful summers day in Falmouth another coxswain was only too willing to go, goes to show that the old sea dogs knew a thing or two.

The ‘Campernel’ was slightly different to other gigs in two ways; she had a wider beam and has places for seven oars instead of six. The bow position on all gigs can be rowed from either side the reason for this is that when under sail to tack or when rowed and needed to turn quick, the bow man could ‘toss’ and would help row the bow around, but as the ‘Campeprnel’ was so much beamier the extra oar would help balance her when rowed off the wind. Unfortunately the ‘Campernel’ is now slowly falling apart in a boat shed in St. Agnes as is not used for racing due to her large beam. She was built with more beam so she could carry boxes of flowers and other cargo between the islands.

During the summer of 1983 he was part of the crew that rowed the ‘Sussex’ from Sennen cove to Scilly and as you already mentioned she has been involved in other long distance rows.

As I child I was brought up with rowing and can remember rowing the ‘Sussex’ and my feet could not even reach the stretcher. I competed in club racing around Falmouth and a season on Scilly and loved any minute of it. It is refreshing to see more youngsters swapping the play station for the sport.

When I was 14 I rowed a 10 mile with the men’s gig crew against all sorts of equivalents of the Cornish gig. The race was from main land France to Ile D’Ouessant and should have been cancelled due to very strong winds and high seas but the French pressed ahead. During the race the safety boats were busy attending many casualties with red parachute flares going up all over the place. Needles to say the gig performed well, and apart from shipping some water we made very good time, we even had the cox’s daughter in the gig as an extra manning the pump. We crossed the line first way ahead of the nearest competitor although just completing was a success on its own. The trip home was cancelled and the few boats that made it over there were shipped across to the main land on the ferry.

Although I do not row gigs anymore (going to sea prevented any commitment to a team) I row a 15 foot boat built by my father and Ralph Bird for pleasure and to help keep me fit. I have two boys and look forward to day they are big enough to take up rowing.

As a pilot in Falmouth I take pride of our seafaring heritage. I am proud that my father builds traditional pilot gigs and although the cutters I am carried around in are warm and dry it is only right that we remember the past

FROM FOWEY PILOT, SAM GUY

Enjoyed the article on Gigs very much. Would like to pass the following comments:
1. Last time I looked I was a Scillonian not a Scillian. Been called a ‘silly b—– a few times but never a Scillian!! (Whoops, my poor proof reading! ed)
2. Gig racing was kept alive in Newquay but it’s revival as a international sport began in the early 60’s when a bunch of young men in Scilly decided to have a go.From this, contact was made with Newquay and the rest, they say, is history. There is still a very strong bond between Newquay and Scilly today.
3. The first of the ‘new’ gigs to be built was the Serica and she was built in Scilly by Tom Chudleigh in 1966/7 and launched July 1967. That was the start of the new builds. Scilly still has a gig builder by the name of Peter Martin, father of Nick Martin who is a UKMPA member and Falmouth Pilot.
4. There are many gigs still being built and several very good builders. Maurice Hunkin and Peter Williams in Fowey to name but two.Will Mitchell in Fowey is a very good source of historical information on gigs and also Scilly!
5. Peter Martin is engaged in refurbishing the Czar over this winter and the Golden Eagle (In which I own a share) will have to be refurbished before she is used again.
6. My first row in a gig was in 1964 when I was home on leave and the Bonnet was short of a crew member for a practice night. I think that was the hardest workI did for my whole apprenticeship!!!
7. Jack Hicks was probably the last of the Pilots to board a ship from a gig when they were used as the sole means of boarding however, my brother, Roy Guyboarded Richard Branson’s boat from a gig following his trans Atlantic Blue Riband success. I believe a Falmouth Pilot boarded a yacht off Falmouth from a gig and I boarded a Square rigger, Endeavour, off Fowey from a gig rowed by a girl crew!!!
Ralph Bird.

 

Read the original illustrated article atthe following link (Page 8) pilotmag.co.uk/userfiles/Pilotmag%20291%20(Autumn%2007).pdf

It is generally acknowledged that the renaissance of the Cornish Pilot Gigs was driven by the enthusiasm and dedication of one man, boat builder Ralph Bird. After World War 2, many of the surviving pilot gigs, which had served a useful training role during the war, were abandoned and although a few local enthusiasts kept some craft maintained there were no real organised regattas and these historic craft were on the verge of rotting into oblivion. However, in 1981, Ralph, with a handful of other enthusiasts, borrowed a few historic gigs and set up the Truro Three Rivers Race. Within five years, four pilot gig clubs had been formed and as a result of a meeting at Mr Bird’s cottage in 1986, the Cornish Pilot Gig Association was formed two years later in 1988.

The Association agreed from the outset that there should be a standard design for all racing gigs and it was decided that the William Peters 1838 built “Treffry” should be the model for the racing gig and all racing gigs are still strictly built to this design. Indeed to ensure compliance with the construction rules new gigs are inspected three times during construction by a member of the CPGA committee.

Next year will therefore mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the CPGA and the sport has never looked stronger with 124 gigs now registered.

 

 

As part of my research into the feature on the pilot gigs I managed to contact Ralph who was able to clarify several points on the construction and working of the boats and he told me that, although semi retired, he was currently building a new gig for Pembroke. What he didn’t tell me was that this was actually the last gig that he would build and it was only by chance, that just as I was finalising this issue, that I learned that there had been a major launch celebration for this gig in Newquay on the 6th October, where this Pembroke gig was named Ralph Bird in his honour. What was even more remarkable was that the CPGA had managed to get all 29 gigs that Ralph has built over the years to Newquay for the celebration. This was no mean feat since some had come from Wales and the Scilly Isles but as Anne Curnow Care, Secretary of the CPGA, says, “that is the wonderful thing about the sport of gig rowing”.

The local priest from Porthgain blessed the Ralph Birdashore in both Welsh and English before she was carried down to the beach and launched for her first outing on the water

The weather was apparently perfect for the event and hundreds of people enjoyed the event. Ralph, along with some of his colleagues, rowed the boat out for a lap of honour round the harbour and the other crews from the assembled “Bird” fleet tossed their oars in salute and gave Ralph three cheers as he passed the assembled line up.

Afterwards, addressing the crowd Ralph said: “I never thought gig rowing would take off in the way that it did. It has been an honour and a privilege to build the gigs and meet the hundreds of people associated with the sport.

9 Responses to “PILOT GIGS OF CORNWALL AND THE SCILLY ISLES”



jane McInnes
July 25th, 2011 at 15:34

hi there

i was fascinated to read about the Sussex being used to take a bride across from Bryher to Tresco. the bridal couple were my grandparents, Reginald Vickery and Bertha Jenkins, they both worked at Tresco Abbey, he was a gardener and she was a maid. they had to marry on Tresco because Bryher church was not licensed for weddings. they went across sat next to each (so much for the bride not being seen by her husband to be), they were married for over 50 years! the timing of the wedding, was dependent on the tides (thus it ever was on Scilly).

 


Richard Biddle
May 15th, 2012 at 20:44

We are in danger of forgetting that the unsung hero of Cornish Gig revival was undoubtedly R.C.H.Gillis of the Newquay Rowing Club In 1953 he was responsible for the rescue of Bonnet , Golden Eagle and Slippen. Slippen was really a basket case, and bought off St Agnes for £35. In November 1954 he organised the purchase of Shah,also for £35. The same trip failed to acquire Czar.
R.C.H.G was also responsible for the restoration of these boats, and one wonders whether there would be the enormous interest shown today without him and the Newquay club. he was also a great oarsman
Finally , he was clearly a man of great discenment, as he declared that the Polruan and Fowey crews were by far the best in the world.

Richard Biddle–River Fowey Gig Club

 


colin edmunds
June 9th, 2012 at 10:27

I would just like to add a short note to supplement the comment in this article about the last pilot being taken out to a ship by gig in 1938. There is a subsequent case of this, but not exactly ‘for real’ as it were. I was in Falmouth Marine School 1994-95 and whilst there rowed the college gig, ‘Energy’, and the Falmouth club boat ‘Fury’. I seem to remember that when the Russian four-master ‘Kruzenshtern’ (formerly ‘Padua’) visited Falmouth in 1995 these two gigs ‘raced’ out to meet her. It was not a race at all of course, but the Falmouth pilot forsook his modern cutter and was carried out on one of the gigs (I can’t remember which) and put aboard the Kruzenshtern in the time honoured fashion

 


JCB
June 10th, 2012 at 07:35

Colin,

Thanks for the interesting update that I’ve added to the article

Regards
John

 
February 27th, 2015 at 10:29

Hello, I am trying to contact Mr Keith Harris on behalf of a client, to use some of the pictures in ‘Azook!’ in a forthcoming publication. Would the author of this website perhaps pass on my email address if he still has contact with Mr Harris, so that I may seek permission to do so? Many thanks.

 


Philip Brett
April 6th, 2015 at 14:08

While looking at the information on the Scilly Isle Pilot Gigs, I noticed the last note on racing and the terms Hevva and Azook. Perhaps you could confirm the meaning and origins of these words or perhaps I’ll be able to provide information on a jumping off point as to their origins. If I am not mistaken they appear to be of Norse origin. Hevva of course stands to reason. To heave on the oars, to pull harder. But Azook might not be as obvious. I think that it may come for A Soke in the Norse, to seek it; to try to find it; to dig deeper; hunt for it; etc. I think you get the Norwegian meaning anyway. I wonder if it more or less corresponds to the meaning in this situation.

Sincerely

Philip Brett

 


Steve Baker
December 10th, 2018 at 19:16

great article , excellent photos and stories of Pilot gigs over the years .
Of course ladies Pilot gig racing is now massive and well included in this . however your inference that Ann Glanville rowed and raced Pilot gigs is incorrect , although there is a possibility that she at some time rowed one , she was famous for racing with her four oared crew in Watermans boats , usually 18 feet . She also rowed these for work carrying goods up and down the Tamar and also as a ferry .
These Watermans boats became more refined over the years and more used for racing and became known as Flashboats . the descendents of these boats still being raced today by CRA clubs around cornwall .

 


JCB
December 12th, 2018 at 16:36

Hello Steve,
Thank you for this clarification that I’ve added to the post thread.

 
March 16th, 2019 at 22:56

I’m trying to find a Richard Gillis from Newquay or any of his family.He was a sea captain for many years.Thanks
MichaelTwohig

 

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