Lyme Regis rower and boat builder, awarded a British Empire Medal for her services to clinker boat building, including her work in creating the three Cornish Pilot Gigs.

By Celia Fraser, GigRower 2015 – photoes by Nick Matthews.

Gail is very special amongst gig builders. Yes she’s the only woman to have – so far – built Cornish Pilot Gigs. But, perhaps more interestingly, she has a unique approach to her work which seems to differentiate her from her peers. Gail encourages a somewhat different take on the on the whole gig building process and its one which, over the course of a conversation with her, you can increasingly see the appeal of.

‘Its a philosophy. I feel passionately about working closely with communities’    

To row in a gig built by Gail must be a wonderful privilage. Not only has she invested her time and love into the build but she has encourage a whole community to join her on that rewarding journey. This means that not only do members rowing the boats feel an extra connection to that craft, but so too do others living in, or connected to, the town in which the gig club nestles. Since 2008 Gail has built three gigs, all for the town of Lyme Regis in Dorset.

In practicle terms, if you are a Lyme Regis rower you may sit in your boat and recall which section of wood you helped prepare, and where it was placed. You may also be conscious that a message you chose to be embossed on that particular part of the boat is there for ever more beneath the oil and paint. Possibly consealed, but there’s a joy in the knowledge that YOU know its there. Gail explains:

‘The knees on a gig are the right-angled brackets which support the thwarts in the gig and there are 42 of them. For the first gig I held a ‘knees-Up’ fortnight! Where I invited people from the local community, and trainee boatbuilders, to come and shape a knee. So each person was guided through that process and the stages of making that knee. Because when you look at it you’d probably think ‘oh’ that’s a simple enough component, but actually there’s quite a lot of different processes involved in making one. Lots of bevels, planing and chiselling and because it’s a clinker boat you’d obviously got to shape the knee around those little ledges. So it’s a really good thing for people to focus on because they then complete that knee and then it’s ‘THEIR’ knee and they’re the creator of it.

We then punch with little letter stamps, their name or a message of their choice on the back of the knee and then that goes into the hull of the boat. So it’s an unseen message but they know it is there. And they know exactly which knee they’ve made and then whenever they are in the boat (if they’re a rower) thereafter they kind of stroke it with fondness of memory’.        

Gail McGarva - Construction


There are many other ways in which Gail involves the community, whether that is by encouraging an open door policy to visitors who wish to drop by and watch a build grow over time, or in terms of involving students or other local people who enjoy working with wood.

‘People are involved in many ways, whether it’s holding the ‘dolly’ which is a metal tool that supports the head of the nail while you’re riveting, or oiling the boat. Where people are retired woodworkers they can be involved in more specialist areas like actually planking out. Steaming is always a wonderful way of involving people. That’s exciting because you have to work really fast and as a cohesive team. I usually have about 6 people involved in each steaming process and so each person has got a role and you get these brilliant visual results very quickly as the rib-cage evolves.

Some processes I do alone but engage others when I see a process as a perfect opportunity for some kind of collective enjoyment. And there are other things which you probably wouldn’t wish it upon them at all. Some things demand a lot more patience than others’.

I wonder if it’s being a woman that makes Gail approach a boat differently from others. Is her nurturing philosophy a female thing or just ‘her?

I think in terms of approaching things differently, I don’t know if it’s about me as a person or me being a woman – the fact that I feel strongly about that working relationship with the community. I very much have an open door philosophy and approach to the way I build the boats. Not just about people getting involved hands-on but it’s also that the people in the local community can come in and see the boats grow and have a relationship with it. For example there was a very elderly lady who used to come down to the shore, when her daughter would pick her up from the local nursing home, and she’d just love to come in and see it through the various stages of the build and watch it grow. And that was really important to her. And you get that sense of people’s pride when they see the boats out on Lyme Bay, that they are ‘their’ boats and that they belong to the Town.

Some express suprise when I do talks about boatbuilding. Some expect to see a man doing the talk. So they show surprise initially. They’re not resistant to it. And sometimes when I’m working alongside volunteers in the boatshed, visitors will pass by and come in and look. If I’m working alongside a lot of male volunteers, people always direct questions towards the men and not me.’

In 2003 Gail decided to change careers. Previously a sign language interpreter for deaf people, she had lived on boats for many years and although not disenchanted with her work she suddenly felt a sense that she wanted boats to become the focal point of her life. She happened to read an American magazine about Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy and she felt she had to go there. The day she walked through the door, she felt what she describes as a sense of a ‘homecoming’. So she changed tack and trained as a boat builder, during which she built a Shetland clinker boat and realised that traditional boats were her natural passion. During this time Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing was continuing to gain enormous popularity and Gail was aware of the gigs at Weymouth and Swanage Gig Clubs. People in Lyme Regis were starting to talk about setting up their own club as well.

After her initial training, Gail was looking to gain more experience and met up with all the Cornish Pilot Gig builders including the late Ralph Bird. Ralph kindly pointed her in the direction of a shipwright in Ireland building a Bantry Bay Gig, for who she became an apprentice. Whilst over there she was still in touch with people in Lyme Regis and they were keen to start a gig club. So she returned to teach at the Boat Building Academy and the Lyme Regis Gig Club commissioned the Academy to build their first gig, with Gail leang the project, Ralph Bird was her mentor for that first boat, which would go on to be named Rebel and to be launched in the summer of 2008.

Gail McGarva - Construction

“Ralph used to visit and I used to go down and see him in Cornwall.  I initially went and scribbled masses of notes and talked to him for hours.  He referred to each of his gigs as being part of a ‘family’ – each with their own personality.He was just absolutely wonderful and invaluable as a mentor.  I feel very, very privileged to have had that relationship with him.  He actually passed on to me all his patterns and templates andmoulds from his builds.That was an incredibly touching and moving gesture. We would speak on the phone very regularly. You get very good at describing 3D dilemmas over the telphone!  And then he would come up and visit and he came to the launch of Rebel”

I ask her if she has any photos of that launch with Ralph in them and she says not really.  “Ralph was a person who didn’t want to force himself into the limelight. He shied away from that focus” she explains.

After her first successful build, Gail went on to become a sole trader and built ‘Tempest – in 2012.  In addition to gig builds she has built or restored lots of other boats.  She has never yet had a permanent workshop space and has had to hop from place to place.

Gail’s specialist area is the building of replicas of ‘open working boats’.

“The boats themselves are the unsung herioes of our coastal heritage because they all have an immense amount of maritime history behind them and speak volumes for their builders and communities.”

Gail prefers to call her builds ‘daughter boats’ because she sees them as having a life force of their own rather than being a slone of the original they may be based on.  She sees her work as “breathing life into a new generation” of boats, including the Cornish Pilot Gigs which she calls daughters of the original template which is of course the ‘Treffry’ from Newquay.  When asked which other gigs she admires on the circuit, she doesn’t hesitate in saying

“I’d like to pay homage to the ‘mother’ boat of our wave of daughter boats – the Treffry.  The lines of that boat are wonderful.  The Cornish Pilot Gig is such an elegant boat.  When you stand on the shoreline at St. Mary’s and see that array of gigs before you it’s such a spectacle and breathtaking – a tribute to each and every one of the builders”

Far from finding the strict design of the Pilot Gig restrictive or less creatie than other builds she might do, she says that the elegance of Gigs make them such a wonderful boat to build.  When I ask her what have been her favourite parts of the construction process, she says it is the ‘Whale-Ship’ moment which is when you finish planking and finish timbering out (creating the rib-cage of the gigs).

“With the gigs you have to cut the ribs around each and every planking edge. So they are notched into the boat.  So when that whole ribcage is completed and you stand back and look back down through the boat it’s like an enormous whale and it’s just absolutely stunning.  So that’s before the thwarts go in, the floor boards go in etc.  Seeing it in that scuoptural state is my favourite moment.”

The hardest aspects for her is probably painting the boat.

“Having become so acquainted with the beautiful grain of the elm, to then paint over it breaks my heart.  However, with the Lyme gigs the inside of the boats are oiled.  So we still get to admire the grain internally.”

Elms is a wondeful planking timber although it it, as she says “mischievous and playful” because it can warp and play games with you.  It can easily spring out of shape so you have to be one step ahead of it apparently.  She does, however, still adore working with it because it’s excellent for planking.

Gail also restores boats and this preservation of heritage vessels is again something which is close to her heart and the fact that Lyme Regis have been so heavily involved in the construction of their own gigs means that she believes they will look after their boats with much more attention than perhaps some other clubs might do.  Her builds take longer than others as a consequence of her involvement of the community.  Nine month, on average, for a Pilot Gig, for instance compared to about six fo other builders.  Many think that having more help would speed the process up but it actually slows things down if there is an element of teaching involved during the build.  “Your rhythm of work is very different compared to working in isolation.” she syas.

As our conversation draws to a close I ask Gail if she’ll be at the World Championships again this year (2015) and she says she will be rowing for Lyme Regis once more, in the number two seat.

“I love rowing.  My relationship to gig racin is very particular.  I shy away from competitiiveness.  I have been in a range of crews (including A and B crews) but for me it’s about rowing for Lyme and the whole ethos of the club.  It’s a wonderful club spirit.  I wouldn’t mind which boat I was in.  They’re all my wooden ‘girls’.  It’s just thrilling to be at those events.

I try to not get too distrcated by bits of grain and thinking ‘I remember you so well! But it’s just the most amazing experience to be on that start line in Scilly and in a boat that you’ve built and look around and see the sister boats.”

I finish my call to Gail wishing I could commission her to immediately build me an open working boat, or at least take part in my own gig build one day.  Her enthusiasm is infectious, her obvious patience and delight in helping others to get involved and learn about the craft is also wonderful to hear about.  And, above all, her passion to keep the spirit of our beautiful boats preserved for the future and retain their connection to their communities is something to admire.

Maybe we should all take time when rowing a wooden gig to appreciate its heritage a little more and look after them a little better.  I am confident that the gigs which Gail has built will be amongst the best preserved for many decades , if not centuries, to come.

Gail McGarva - Construction