Peter’s Yard, St Mawes

The gigs built by The Peter’s (William Peters, his son Nicholas, their family and apprentices) were in such high demand that even the piots from the Isles of Scilly had their gigs built in their yard. The gigs were carried overland by horse and cart then sailed or towed home to their new proud owners. With fewer ships visiting the Islands, it was becomming vital for pilots to own a fast boat.

The Peters treated their gigs as something special, more than just ‘working boats’. They were lighter and finer in build and given the same lavish launches as a great schooner. When Treffry was launched in 1838 she was unpainted, only polished with linseed oil, and the crew wore smart red jackets and stove pipe hats. They rowed around Carrick Roads where they were saluted by a visiting warship. Treffry’s lines were made the official build regulations in 1986 by Ralph Bird and the CPGA to keep the boats looking and racing exactly as they did over 100 years ago.

Interestingly the boat built by University of Oxford’s Balliol College for the 1829 boat race owes the vast majority of its design and method of construction to the pilot gigs of Cornwall. Stephen Davies was almost certainly a journeyman boatbuilder, trained by the Peters family of Polwarth, St Mawes.

As we have seen the pilot gigs of Cornwall had evolved to row out to sea to meet incoming vessels approaching up the English Channel from the Atlantic in order to put a pilot on board. They had to be seaworthy, safe alongside a tossing ship. return home and beach, possibly in a following sea. But most important they had to be fast. Piloting was a highly competitive business and, as, with the boat race, there are two results – win or lose.

The Oxford boat of 1829 demonstrates her Cornish inheritance with ten narrow planks a side, giving a flexible hull resistant to the impact of seas, ships and beaches. She has a pronounced sheer, the top line of the boat rising high at the bow and stern, reducing the risk of the sea overwhelming her. The stem is upright with a rounded nose so as not to snag a heaving ship. The hull is strengthened with steamed ribs carefully joggled over the planking in the bilge and spaced only 150mm apart. This gives a light, strong but flexible hull. Each of the eight rowing and single coxswains thwarts or seats have four strong, supportive knees. A visit to the River and Rowing Museum to look at this boat reveals the same detail from the pilot gig Treffry.

There are of course differences with Cornish Pilot Gigs. The Oxford boat is eight oared rather than the normal six, West Country gigs were limited by order of H M Customs and Excise so the revenue boats stood a chance of catching a smuggling suspect. In 1829 eight-oared boats were becoming the norm amongst gentleman rowers at school and colleges. The 45ft length was needed for speed. If it was shorter, the ‘waterline length rule’ forces the boat to climb its own bow wave; much longer and the greater wetted surface increasingly slows the boat. The ideal length is a compromise related to hull cross section, the boat’s weight and, most importantly, the overall power of the crew. The stronger the crew the longer the boat needs to be to reach an optimum speed.

The gig of Stephen Davies, with her rakish Cornish lines must have caused some comment amongst Thames boatbuilders, who built the Cambridge boat. Almost everything was quite different to a Thames build. On the Thames most boats were built in the Lambeth area where Scandinavian inheritance of all clinker boats was still retained. There would have been six, maybe seven, planks on each side. The gunwhale (upper edge of planking) would consist of a single board, a saxboard rising up from its lower sheerline to the rowlocks. The stem would be raked with a sharp nose for landing passengers and crew on a foreshore. The hull would be stiffened by heavier timbers sawn to the shape without bending, and only half the numer of knees would be used.

Needless to say Oxford in their eight oared gig won. Jackson’s Oxford Journal described the boats in the 1829 race this way: ‘We forgot to mention the manifest differences in the boats. The Cambridge boat, though London-built and launched new for the occasion and much gayer in appearance than the old Oxford boat, was far inferior in the water, dipping to the oar whilst the other rose to every stroke in fine style; and though the Oxford crew were stronger, the Cambridge might have given them more trouble if they had been equally well boated’.  

(Extracts from Gig Rower Magazine & ‘An Oxford boat with a Cornish accent’ by Mark Edwards)