THE BEGINNING OF GIGS
Way back in 1789 the first lifeboat was launched. Henry Greathead designed the first “unsinkable” lifeboat for South Shields and then supplied boats of the same design to over 20 ports and harbours. Aptly named “Original”, she was 30ft in length and 10ft in beam, with cork fitted into the bow and stern air cases along with the gunwale. She relied solely on men pulling oars for power. The first ever recorded Plymouth lifeboat was of this type. She was presented by Philip Langmead, a local M.P. and former Mayor and arrived in the City on July 20th 1803.
The Royal, National Lifeboat Institution (R.N.L.I.) had not been founded and so the responsibility of looking after the boat was left to a local committee. It was logical that the “Original” lifeboat was stationed at Cawsand with a shorter distance to row to any casualty in Plymouth Sound.
She was withdrawn in 1840 and transferred to the Isles of Scilly.
The design of the pilot gig has barely changed since those early days. Quite capable of going to sea in almost any weather, and at times would have been used for rescue work when a vessel was in distress. Traditionally clinker built, a gig is typically 30 to 32 feet long, 5 feet wide and weighs approximately a third of a tonne. They are made from planks of Cornish Elm ¼ ” to 3/8 ” thick and 4 ½ inches wide. The rudder is made of elm and steered by a yoke and yoke lines. Bars of wood, called stretchers are placed across the floor of the gig for the rower to rest their feet (and to push against when more effort is required). The oars rest between two wooden thole pins. These “pins” are made of wood, instead of the usual iron rowlocks you see on most rowing boats. The reason being that if an oarsman catches the sea wrong (catches a crab), it is the “pin” that breaks and not part of the boats hull.
In their working days oars were up to 18 feet long with straight blades and would be called oars or sweeps. The oars used today tend to be around 14 feet long and have a curved blade, with the aim of “catching” more water, and are now often referred to using the terms “paddles” or “scoops”. The gig would also have originally carried a main and mizzen sail. There would have been hooks on the inside of the gig for the tack of the sail to be attached. To change tack, the sail had to be lowered and passed around the mast.
The cost of building a gig was £1.00 per foot and this included the oars, masts and sails. Usually money was raised from salvage, and often the gig would carry the name of the fated ship. Most Gigs throughout Cornwall were built at Peters boatyard in St Mawes by William Peters and his family. Typically the paint used on the gigs would have been creosote or tar based, which helped preserve them. It is said that Peters was so pleased with the construction of one of his gigs that he refused to cover his work with paint and the Treffry wasn’t painted but was coated with transparent oils. His pride in that boat has been rewarded, as the mould and dimensions of the Treffry (at 32’0″ in length and a beam of 4’9″) are used as the standard template for all new gigs.
“WHEN SHIPS WERE MADE OF WOOD AND MEN WERE MADE OF IRON”
The life of a pilot was a dog eat dog existence. When more than one Pilot Gig spotted a potential job, a race would develop in order to get the piloting contract.
It is likely that pilot gigs date back as far as the 18th century, but the official history of the Pilot Gig starts in 1790 when the Peters family of St. Mawes in Cornwall received an order for a boat to be built originally for lifesaving work on the north coast of Cornwall, and for the transport of a Pilot out to vessels coming off the Atlantic. Speed was crucial as only the first Pilot aboard would get the job. With more than one Pilot working in the area, the race was on..
Used primarily as pilot cutter, whose crews would race to get their pilot aboard incoming vessels first and so receive the custom of that ship; this included the carrying of goods and cargo to shore sometimes illegally. The boats are traditionally clinker built, the oarsmen used “T” hole pins of wood instead of the much favored rowlock so as to eliminate any structural damage should he miss a stroke or “catch a crab”. All present day gigs are 32 ft. long and weigh around 7cwt. They have a crew of 6 oarsmen and a coxswain; this is perhaps a relic of the days of smuggling when H.M. Excise limited the number of oars lest the gigs outran their own 8 man cutters.
The last time that a Cornish Pilot Gig was used to put a Pilot on board a vessel was in 1939, and the last rescue involving a Gig was at the wreck of the “Mindau” in the Isles of Scilly in 1959. This was the “Sussex” . Originally built for the men of Bryher in 1886, the “Sussex” s been present at many historic wrecks in the past including that of the “T.W. Lawson” and the “Minihaha”, the latter carrying a cargo of livestock involved the men of Bryher tying the horns of the cattle onto the thole pins of the Gig so that they could be rowed ashore. The peak time for Pilot work was early to mid 1800’s although still used occasionally up to the mid 20th century. The evolution of steamships and improvements in navigation meant it was unnecessary for ships to call on the services of a local pilot.
LOCAL FISHING INDUSTRY
In the early 1800s there were at least 60 Hookers in Cawsand Bay. These were the type of fishing boats used for catching pilchards, mackerel and herring. One fine September morning, practically all the Hookers and Pilot Cutter’s were on the shore in Cawsand Bay having their bottoms scrubbed to remove the weed, when a violent storm and easterly gale arose and the safety of the boats was causing a major concern. As the tide rose and the waves became greater, many of the boats were swamped and were totally wrecked. Only the hookers with counter sterns managed to get back to their moorings safely. In 1891, it is recorded that a great blizzard caused the sinking of many anchored boats in Cawsand Bay due to the weight of the snow. Moorings were broken and vessels were driven ashore to be pounded by huge waves and high winds. The pilot cutter “Mystery” dragged her moorings and damaged other craft causing untold damage and sinking. Only one boat remained after the storm which was owned by Mr Andrew’s.
Pilchard fishing in Cawsand was a major industry and were taken by drift or seine nets. In order to preserve the nets during the close season, they were treated in a solution of oak bark extract with the bark being boiled in huge vats and the nets were immersed into the boiling extract for a considerable time before being laid on the beach to dry. There were four bark houses in the area (fish cellars). One at Sandway, another on the bound, the third on Girt Beach and the forth at the back of what used to be the Pilot Boat Inn. These buildings were large rectangular buildings with a central courtyard open to the sky. The curing process was carried out on the floor, the fish being protected from the weather by net lofts supported on stone or timber pillars. There were also accommodation spaces used during the fishing season. The cellar floor was covered with round sea pebbles, which was known as “caunsing”. The floor sloped inwards from the walls to drain into a gutter which in turn led to what was known as the “train-pit” The curing of pilchards took approximately 5 weeks and woman and children would lend a hand to lay the pilchards along the cellar walls and cover each layer in salt. Stacks could be up to five feet high.
Smuggling was a way of life and an organised profession. It was carried out on an extensive scale by individuals from all walks of life.
Most contraband was a simple trade of eggs, potatoes and vegetables in exchange for tea, silks, tobacco and spirits from the ships that were visiting the mainland shores.
However, rowing to France to import goods also became a common activity and for £5 a gig could be chartered, with its seven crew, for a return “business” trip. It is reported that John Nance, a Scilly Isles Pilot, made 25 trips to Roscoff in Brittany, at 250 miles each round trip. Business was so good that it has been written that more contraband was being shipped into the Isles of Scilly than that shipped legally into the Port of London.
Smuggling eased the poverty in Cawsand and Kingsand and led to the first property boom. Many cottages built with the gains of smuggling. Some were designed with tunnels running to their basements from the rocky caves close by.
With the vast harbour of Plymouth having a naval presence throughout the 18th and 19th century, should have made smuggling more difficult, The city itself formed the largest market for contraband in Cornwall. There was bitter rivalry between Kingsand and Cawsand both being hotbeds of smuggling, with easy access to Plymouth across the harbour. In 1804 the revenue services estimated that 17000 kegs of spirits had been landed in Cawsand and Kingsand in just one year.
THE GIG RENNAISANCE
The demise of pilotage and smuggling and the welcome reduction in salvage, due to the improvements in navigational aids and the change from sail to steam, brought an end to the working life of gigs. Many were left to rot where they lay or were broken up for their planks.
In 1957 the only gigs surviving were the Newquay (1812), Bonnet (1830), Campernell, Czar (1879, Dove (1830), Gipsy (1860), Golden Eagle (1870), Klondyke (1877), Queen (1880), Shah (1873), Slippen (1830), Sussex (1886), Treffry (1838), and Zelda (1874).
In 1947 Newquay Rowing Club reformed and provided the spark to reignite Cornish Rowing. In 1953 four men from Newquay began to trace, measure and record the history of all the pilot gigs. They went to Scilly Isles and found four gigs, all badly in need of repair – the Bonnet, Shah, Golden Eagle and the Slippen – and bought them for £35 each, except the Slippen which was only worth a mere £25.00. They were taken away to Newquay and over the next few years, extensive work was undertaken to get these magnificent gigs repaired and ready to return to sea.
In 1970 the County Championships began in Newquay and the first World Pilot Gig Championships was hosted by the Isles of Scilly on the first bank holiday weekend in May 1990. The first line up comprised 19 gigs and in 2010 the number of gigs competing passed the 120 mark.
The gig renaissance had truly begun and from 1990 – 1999, 39 new gigs were built with over 60 gigs being built from 2000 – 2009.
The club was formed in1992 by former members of the Cawsand Bay Rowing Club and others, in order to revive and promote the sport of competitive rowing in the Rame Peninsula. Principally to utilise our valuable natural resources – the sea and a mild climate and also to provide a healthy, athletic pastime for the members of our community – young and the more mature! Popular throughout the 19th Century, Pilot Gig racing had started in Newquay in 1962 and, by 1992 there were over 40 gigs racing for 20 Cornish clubs. With such fast recognition for the sport, it was decide, after a round of drinks in what was then the Ship Inn, to once again revive a part of our Cornish Heritage.
Gig racing is a fast growing sport and local to Cornwall, Isles of Scilly and Devon.There are numerous Regattas held throughout the summer in which the club competes. These attract large crowds as the racing is very colourful and spectacular. We have an ideal location in Cawsand Bay for staging our own Regatta with excellent facilities for both spectator and competitors.
The sport provides the opportunity for the whole family to participate. Families either row together or provide the network of behind-the-scenes supporters. Each crew consists of six oarsmen and a coxswain, which are made up of boys and girls, men and women. We now have juniors, men and ladies, Veterans (40 -49yrs), Supervets (50-59yrs) as well as Masters (60+yrs) crews
Our first gig, the Spirit of Rame was built by Jimmy Donne and Son of St Budeaux, Plymouth; she was the first to be made outside of Cornwall. The second build was the Minnadhu, this is a Cornish word meaning “black rock”. It was named after one of the fields overlooking Cawsand and Kingsand Bay; the Minnadhu is probably out fastest boat and very comfortable to row in. Jim Currah built her in 1994. Finally, Jim and his son Dave Currah built the Penlee Point, in 2004. In 2015 we acquired our first GRP gig, the Maker Wave, as she isn’t of traditional construction she is used primarily for training. In 2018 the Tamar Valley Winter League was established which is limited to GRP gigs only.