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Going back to rowing's roots

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Annabel Vernon | 07:06 UK time, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A common assumption made about my rowing career is that, as a Cornish girl, I must have started out in a pilot gig, and I was always ashamed to admit I'd never even tried it.

I put that right on a beautiful, still, late summer's evening in the estuary at Falmouth, which made a welcome change from the normally freezing mornings and biting winds when training with the GB squad on the Thames.

The scene was only enhanced by the wooden pilot gigs, each one named and painted in bright colours, and they really are beautiful constructions compared to the forgettable yellow and black plastic German-made shells that we race in.

Cornish pilot gigs at Falmouth

The pilot gigs make for a spectacular scene at Falmouth. Photo: gigrower.co.uk

Cornish pilot gigs date back to the days of sail, when large ships attempted to wind their way into the dangerous ports in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles and needed someone with local knowledge and experience in navigation.

The licensed Trinity House pilots had crewed boats to row them out to the incoming ships and, when one was spotted on the horizon, there was often a race to get out to it as the first crew there would get the pilotage fee. Hence rowing races were born, and the first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race took place in a pair of pilot gigs.

According to my grandfather, a Trinity House pilot in north Cornwall in the 1970s and 1980s, another important duty when returning to Padstow having navigated a ship back out to sea around Trevose Head was to collect any of the local women still on board entertaining the sailors and take them back to town. But I digress.

When I was growing up gig clubs were thin on the ground but in the last 20 years the sport has expanded hugely in the Scilly Isles, west country and the south coast of England. Gig rowing can now even be found in the US, France, the Netherlands and the Faroe Islands. The most recent World Championships (held annually in the Scilly Isles in May) were attended by nearly 2,000 rowers and over 120 boats - equally split between men's and women's crews.

So on our recent break following the World Championships, I was invited down to Flushing and Mylor Pilot Gig Club by a friend to finally have a go at our home-grown sport.

A pilot gig in Falmouth estuary

Getting the gig into the water is the first major test. Photo: gigrower.co.uk

Gigs are crewed by six rowers plus cox, so the seven of us set to getting the boat into the water off the beach. And that was the first stumbling block. Sliding-seat rowing boats are carbon fibre and weigh between 14kg (for a single scull) and 96kg (for an eight). You can carry them on your shoulders between three or four of you without too much effort. The gigs, by contrast, are solid wood with thick planks for the decking and thwarts and took rollers and trolleys to get them into the water.

The good ship 'Penarrow' afloat, we next turned to the oars. The carbon fibre oars I'm used to weigh a few pounds in total and are stiff and aerodynamic. In Falmouth, my skills were swiftly put to shame as I was handed a heavy wooden oar with just a strip of leather around the part which rested against the rowlock. And when I say rowlock, I mean two pins set into the side of the boat, with nothing to stop it sliding laterally away from me, or up and out of the boat into the sea.

My early efforts were pretty pathetic as I kept losing control of the oar so it would just slip off the side of the boat, leaving yours truly lamely clinging on to the handle so as not to lose it (as well as my dignity) altogether.

The rest of the crew, all experienced gig rowers, in between gales of laughter gave me lots of tips to improve and gig rowing seemed to me to be just as technical as sliding-seat rowing, with the same buzz out of those moments when it comes together and the crew is working in harmony.

Despite the seats being fixed benches, my impression was that a lot of the technique is transferable between the two types of rowing and you certainly use your legs to move the boat much more than I'd imagined. Racing is of course very different - we would never have to cope with four foot sea swells as the gig rowers do, or execute 180 degree turns around race buoys.

We could share tales of calloused hands and chafed bottoms, though. Solidarity.

A pilot gig

The job is not quite finished once the boat is brought back to shore

Thanks to the ladies of Flushing & Mylor Pilot Gig Club who made me very welcome and didn't laugh too loudly at my fairly rustic efforts. I will certainly be banging the drum for gig rowing in the future - what a great sport, and a huge part of our proud Cornish seafaring tradition.

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