A gig is a six oared rowing boat originally used to carry pilots to vessels wanting to negotiate difficult waters around Cornwall, hence the name ‘Pilot Gig’. The Isles of Scilly have a particularly long and distinguished history when it comes to pilot gigs, and these wonderful craft are still in use today.
Gigs are thought to have originated in Cornwall in the 18th century and the idea quickly caught on in the Isles of Scilly. Local Pilots who could claim to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the waters around the Islands would be taken out to any vessel requiring assistance of any kind and put aboard. Boats from each Island would race to the vessel, and the first one there would get the contract for the pilotage. St. Agnes was particularly successful regarding being first to put a pilot on board as it had the best access to the western approaches a notoriously difficult area to navigate. At it’s height as an industry, St. Agnes had four pilots living on it. Gigs were made in different shapes in order to fit the purpose for which they would be used, for example, long gigs with fine lines were built for speed whereas a wide gig would be build for stability and for carrying cargo.
The Isles of Scilly is currently home to thirteen gigs, the number would have been more than twice that when they were used as working boats. The gigs now are used as a sports event and the weekly races are seen by many as one of the main social activities on the islands bringing the community together. Every Friday evening in the Summer, the men’s gig race takes place, usually about eight or nine gigs will take part in this. Wednesday night is women’s gig racing night. The popularity of gig racing in the Isles of Scilly is generally thought to be more than any other part of the world, even Newquay, as more people partake in the sport per head of population than anywhere else.
The gig has six oarsmen, (each has one oar) as well as a coxswain who sits in the stern of the boat and steers via ropes attached to the rudder. The Gigs these days race around a variety of courses, from off – islands to St. Mary’s and vice versa, from nut rock to St. Mary’s, including swap races, triangle races which start and finish in St. Mary’s harbour. The most modern of these gigs in the Galetea of St. Martins, built in 2000 and the Tregarthens of all the islands, built in 1998. The oldest racing gig on the Islands is the Bonnet of St. Mary’s, built in 1830. There are several gigs which are not raced on a Friday night for several different reasons. The Campernell of St. Agnes is not a racing gig because she is too wide, the Slippen does not race due to her age and weight, and the Islander does not race, except in the World Championships because that is what was agreed by her shareholders. Gigs built today are all of similar specifications, with a length of about 30 foot.
The World Championships are an annual event which usually take place over the first weekend of April, and crews from all over the world come to Scilly to race for the title. Crews so far have come from as far afeild as America and the Faroe Islands, although most gigs are from Cornwall. The gigs are raced in heats over two days and recently as many as 70 gigs have taken part! Scillonian Gigs
The Isles of Scilly have a long and distinguished history when it comes to pilot gigs, unfortunately, only a handful of these magnificent and varied craft still remain afloat and active today. Gigs were originally used to take pilots out to incoming ships; Scillonian pilots were regarded as some of the best in the world and were given licences by Trinity House. Each Island had its own pilots and therefore needed its own pilot gigs. Some were privately owned, some were owned by shareholders and companies looking for profit owned some too. The trade provided an invaluable income for the poor Islanders in the 1800’s. The gigs proved themselves as outstanding with great manoeuvrability and stability; they were sometimes even, preferred to lifeboats. Gigs were frequently used to rescue the crew of a stricken vessel and collect valuable salvage.
Here is a list of all of the gigs ever known to have been on Scilly at any time, their dates vary from the early 1800’s to the modern day as gig racing is a rapidly emerging sport. Some of the gigs moved between islands and some of the names mustn’t be confused with later mainland gigs. Those marked with a (†) are still racing today and those marked with a (‡) are gigs built in the 20th century for racing purposes only.
- Bonnet †
- Dolly Varden
- Golden Eagle (formerly of Bryher)
- Hope I
- Lloyds Black
- Lloyds Green
- Lloyds White
- Mohamed I
- Nornour ‡
- Old Town Gig (previously numbered)
- Serica ‡
- St. Vincent
- Bonnet †
- Czar †
- Hope II
- Men a Vaur ‡
- Bee (formerly of St. Mary’s)
- Klondyke (formerly St. Mary’s, now in the Museum)
- O & M (named after Obediah and Mary Hicks)
- Slippen (formerly the Bernice of St. Martins)
- Shah †
- Bonnet †
- Dauntless (a modern gig but not racing)
- Dolphin ‡
- Galatea I
- Galatea II †(built by Ralph Bird in 2001)
- Czar (shared with Tresco)
- Golden Eagle (later St. Mary’s)
- Men a Vaur ‡
Other (shared by The Islands for Junior crews and World Championships)
- Tregarthens (Built by D & J Currugh in 1999)
- Islander (Built by Tom Chudleigh in 1990)
Only four of the older ‘original’ gigs survive for Island races, they are the Czar, the Shah, the Golden Eagle and the Bonnet. The Campernel is still in her shed on St. Agnes, the Slippen is used occasionally for practices on St. Mary’s and the Klondyke is on display in St. Mary’s Museum. It is largely thanks to Newquay rowing club that the Shah and the Bonnet have survived, Newquay bought them and then later, gave them back in return for a new gig the ‘Active’. Newquay also played a key role in the revival of Gig rowing as a sport. It is a fitting testament to these crafts that so many mainland crews have adopted the old names for their own new gigs. Only two ‘old’ gigs survive in Cornwall now, they are both at Newquay. These days all new gigs are built to the same specifications, the older gigs in Scilly varied depending on their intended task and the craftsman. Only four of the Seventy-Four gigs that have been on The Islands in the past survive for rowing. Different gigs met with different fates, some were cut up to make two boats, one was made into a chicken house, one, bizarrely, now decorates a restaurant on St. Mary’s. The sad fate that awaited the majority of these craft though, was being left to rot in fields once their useful lives had finished.