Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing has always had a long and important place in Cornwall’s cultural heritage. An ancient sport that has lasted through the ages, gig rowing is a quintessential part of Cornish life on the coast, and from the Isles of Scilly to the north of Cornwall, people are keeping this sport alive and thriving.
Cornish Pilot Gig rowing dates to as early as the 17th century and throughout history rowing in Cornwall has had strong influences both in working and leisure life. The 9.8-metre-long, six oared rowing boats have since evolved from their original purpose as lifeboats for harbour communities and working boats to convey pilots to incoming vessels. However, it was here that the competitive streak of Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing began, when crews would compete to reach a sailing vessel and win the contract to pilot the vessel to shore. Today, the role of a Cornish Gig has changed slightly, from the regattas and the competitions that draw in clubs from across the world, to summer evenings spent with local members taking to the bays.
For Karen Beswetherick, life as a Cornish Gig Rower is the norm. Project Manager at the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, Karen gets to see Cornwall’s rowing history closer than anyone, as she works on the association’s latest project, Pulling Together the Past a Heritage Lottery funded project to record the story of Cornwall’s gig rowing communities. Since June last year, Karen and others have been working hard to create and populate a new physical archive of vulnerable heritage material to be deposited in Kresen Kernow, the new Cornwall Record Office. As well as this, a digital archive containing over 10,000 items of images, documents, artefacts, film and audio will be available for public access in a hope to show how important and vital the culture and heritage of Cornish Gig Rowing is and continues to be, as Karen explains here,
“Pulling Together the Past is a project that hopes to record the story of gig rowing before it’s lost. Gig rowing has taken off right up through the county and it’s important for people to know where it all started and how fantastic its history and heritage is.”
A successful gig rower herself, Karen celebrated her 13th win at the latest Cornish Pilot Gig World Championship, on the 30th anniversary of the races no less. For 20 years, Karen has been part of a Cornish Pilot Gig club in Falmouth and claims that rowing has changed her life,
“When I discovered rowing, I was looking for a new challenge and interest that would be good for my young son and me and as I had always enjoyed sport at school I realised I was missing something from my life. My family and I used to holiday in the Scillies when I was a child and we always used to watch the gig rowing, it was something I always wanted to try. One day I went down to the Falmouth club and they welcomed me in, it changed my life completely and opened up a whole new world for me and my son. The friends I’ve made along the way I never would have met if it wasn’t for rowing and it’s a great escape from work and everyday life.
“I love being in a where you work for each other,” she says, “I love the fitness, and I’ll have to admit, I love winning. There is a competitive element with rowing, but you can take rowing in whichever direction works most for you. You can just enjoy rowing at a club and learning how to master the gig, meeting up and socialising, or you can be part of a squad group like myself where you compete at races and regattas.”
With the World Championships separated into categories, Men’s and Women’s along with Veteran and Super Veteran which is for the over 50’s, Karen and her crew proudly took home the trophy for the women’s heats, 25 years after she first picked up an ore,
“It still feels a bit surreal,” she explains, “I can’t believe we’ve achieved this and on the 30th anniversary of the races too, it feels great. Everyone in the top crews had worked so hard all winter. We were up against a crew from Caradon who have won it for the last three years in a row and they gave us a real fight, they didn’t let go easily, it was a really close final!”
Another rower who found passion and drive in the seat of a gig is 55-year-old Simon Tripp, who is part of a Super Veteran squad aimed at rowers over the age of 50. A former rugby player, Simon came into the game of rowing much later in life eight years ago after a knee injury prevented him from playing rugby any further.
“I was searching for something [after my injury], because I’ve always been active,” Simon explains, “I saw the Scillies races and felt inspired to give it ago. I went around quite a few clubs to see which one to join. For me Falmouth was the best choice, I’m also quite competitive and at Falmouth there’s not many times you can’t get out on the water, we’ve been out in 45 mile-per-hour winds, but with the shelter and facilities it’s easy. I only started about eight years ago, so I’m a novice really. At Falmouth there’s a really nice mixture of people, you can get in a gig with someone who has just started out or with someone whose been rowing for over thirty years.”
Despite classing himself as only a novice, Simon was another winner at this year’s World Championship on the Scillies, taking home the trophy for the Super Vet Mixed races along with his dedicated team of both men and women. Of course, a clear underlying theme in both Karen and Simon which has both pushed and inspired them, is the heritage and influence of rowing present in the Isles of Scillies. Here, Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing as a competitive sport saw its revival and renewed growth.
“I think the Scillies has had a big push behind why Cornish Pilot Gig rowing has grown so much,” says Karen, “I think that’s where people get their first taste of it and of the thrill of experiencing the races. It’s such a unique place to go and take part in something. There were so many gigs that used to be on Scilly to take pilots out to the ship, there’s a lot of heritage for Cornish Gig Rowing on the islands.”
Both Karen and Simon are passionate about the inclusivity Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing offers, whether you’ve a desire to hit the races at Scilly or not, rowing can be for anyone and the culture of this traditional Cornish water sport is thriving, with 79 clubs now registered to the Cornish Pilot Gig Association and around 200 gigs it’s easier than ever to find a local club for those keen to give it go, regardless of what you want to get out of it.
“Cornish Pilot Gig Rowing doesn’t get enough recognition really,” says Simon, “and it’s Cornwall’s national sport.”
“You take whatever you want from it,” adds Karen, “be it fitness, socialising, competing, being part of a team or just even being on the water.”
A versatile vessel that has been transporting, protecting, entertaining and working for Cornwall for centuries, the role of the Cornish Gig Pilot may have changed over the last few decades, but its importance to our culture and communities certainly hasn’t. If you’re looking for something new to try this summer, this is definitely a sport we would recommend.
To discover more about the Cornish Gig Pilot Association, clubs near you and the Pulling Together the Past Project, visit www.cpga.co.uk