Crashing waves, gallant lifeboat crews, and sailing skills to make you gasp - if you're looking for something a little different to do around the first May Spring Bank Holiday weekend, consider a trip to the Isles of Scilly for the World Pilot Gig Championship. It was first held in 1989, with just 19 boats. In normal circumstances, it attracts thousands of rowers and visitors from around the world.
After a break of a couple of years due to the pandemic, the gigs are back on track from 2022, when it will take place from 29th April to the 1st May. It's thought that gig rowing dates from the 1700s.
The coast around Cornwall is notoriously dangerous in certain locations, and vessels between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland required a skilled pilot to steer them through the treacherous waters.
In the mid-nineteenth century, there were around two hundred men working on the Isles of Scilly as pilots. Gigs could launch quickly, slipping between the jagged rocks that are so common around the Cornish coast, rowing straight out to sea, even into a headwind. In good west country tradition, they were also used for rescuing others in distress at sea, navigation and trade, and, of course, smuggling.
After a long Atlantic crossing, the Scilly Islands were the first port of call for food, or repairs, or general supplies. Ships would signal with a flag that they were ready to pick up pilots to guide them into the relatively calm harbour on the island of St. Mary's. When the flag went up, the gigs would embark on a race to get to the ship first – enabling them to take the job and claim the payment.
The pilot gigs themselves are six-oared rowing boats, with six crew members and a coxswain. They're mostly found in the south west of England, particularly Cornwall. The Cornish gig is made from elm wood and is just under 10 metres long (around 32 feet).
After World War II, pilot gigs were used less frequently as working vessels, but it soon became a much-loved pleasure pastime. Wednesday or Friday evenings in the summer are the time to watch the local crews from each island race for glory. Join the rest of the landlubbers on the quay at St. Mary's, or adventure out to sea yourself on a tripper board, listening to the yarns of the crew in the pub after the race is done.
There will be a limited number of gigs in 2022, in line with the criteria for selection outlined in 2020, which in turn were based on the 2019 results. Each CPGA-affiliated club will receive one invitation; additional invitations will be sent out in line with the 2020 selection criteria. In 2020, 120 boat crews were due to compete, until it was cancelled at short notice.
Registration for the 2022 event is due to open in the autumn of 2021.