Gig History

History of the Cornish Pilot Gig

The first account of a gig being used to assist a shipwreck is documented in 1666 in ‘Ye Shippe Royal Oake‘ is wrecked on Bishop’s Rock off the Isles of Scilly in a storm. St Mary’s gigs rescue distressed survivors 52 hours later.

In the early 19th century gigs were working boats in the South West and the Scillies, ferrying pilots out to incoming vessels to help them navigate through the rocks and safely into harbour. The boats competed to get their pilot out to the boat first and win the fee. Gigs also served other purposes along the English coast; salvage, smuggling and lifesaving, sometimes under sail but more often rowed by a crew of six. In 1829 HM Customs and Excise ban 8 and 10 oared gigs. “Even today the thought of out-running the revenue man has a certain ring about it!”

Gigs needed to have length, lightness and flexibility to be manageable in extremely heavy seas. Gig racing was born out of the competition to get pilots out to boats and from the testing of newly built gigs against others to measure their performance. The first record of remarkable women rower Ann Glanville competing in a regatta was in Pymouth when she came secondin a four oared gig Alarm. However by the end of the 19th Century and after the Industrial Revolution, oar and sail were replaced by engines and competitive gig racing declined.

In 1921 men who had rowed gigs before the war felt it was time to revive the sport and the Newquay Rowing Club was formed. There were still three gigs in Newquay’s ownership, all built by William Peters (whose name is synonymous with gigs and gig building); ‘Newquay’ – built in 1812 and thought to be the oldest traditional rowing boat in the world and who is still rowed by the Club, Dove – built in 1820 and Treffry built in 1838. Peters considered Treffry his finest gig.

Racing continued until around 1929/30 when wider interest in the sport declined. With the outbreak of the Second World War the gigs were kept watertight and prevented from drying out only because cadets used them for training. In 1947 the Newquay Rowing Club was reformed and gig racing once again became popular on the South West coast and Scillies. In 1954 Richard Gillis, Tom Pryor and George Northey (from Newquay Rowing Club) visit he Isles of Scilly and buy Slippen, Bonnet and the Golden Eagle. A year later they return to buy Shah, Zelda and Gypsey – the later two being gifted to Padstow Regatta Commitee. In 1956 these gigs, plus a handful left on the Islands, make up a total of only 13 gigs in existance.

In 1970 Newquay hosts the first County Championships using heir three boats – Newquay, Dove and Treffey with only men competing. Newquay’s boats were the only gigs raced at the County Championships up untill 1985 when they had to start borrowing boats so more crews could enter.

In June 1986 Ralph Bird, the celebrated gig builder, and Newquay’s George Northey agreed that as the sport was growing in popularity some specifications for gig builds should be agreed. On 5th December 1986 a group of 14 interested parties met in Ralph Bird’s front room and laid down a spec; length, beam, elm planking, no fibreglass. The only officer elected was the Chairperson, who would also do the measuring. The following January, in the Royal Hotel, Truro, Ralph Bird’s specifications (based on those of the Treffry built in 1838 by William Peters) were adopted as standard and the association was christened the Cornish Pilot Gig Association. Lyme Regis Club member and gig builder Gail McGarva was fortunate to be mentored by Ralph Bird. Ralph’s vision, philosophy and skills live on in the safe hands of Gail a new generation Cornish Pilot Gig, boat builder.

Membership of the CPGA today stands at 65 clubs, with over 170+ registered gigs. In May 2016 151 gigs took part in the Cornish Pilot Gig Championships in the Isles of Scilly. New Gig Clubs are starting up at the rate of 3 a year and are spreading outside of their traditional Cornish ‘homeland’ to Devon, Dorset, London, Wales and as far a-field as Holland Bermuda and the Faro Islands