Saturday, 17 October 2015

Gig rowing for river rowers/skiffers

Today I was lucky enough to be taken out for a "taster session" in a Cornish Pilot Gig (in Hampshire, but you can eat Cornish Pasties there, so why not?).

On hearing that I was a river rower/skiffer, the coach immediately told me that "This is completely different", and it turned out that he was right, in several ways. Here's what I learned...

A bit of history first
When a big ship approaches a harbour, however skilled her captain is, a pilot will usually be taken on board to guide her in, because of the need for detailed local knowledge – shoals, rocks, whether the neighbourhood pirates were still sleeping it off after last night's orgy, rip tides and so on.

Nowadays, this is all very organised with pilots formally associated with each port, and the putting aboard of on on incoming ships arranged by radio. But back in the days when big ships had sails, and small boats were powered by oars, it was a free market, and the first pilot that reach the ship got the job. Which is why pilots paid good money to be taken out by the fastest gig. So early gig races were serious, professional affairs, and probably meant the difference between the rowers' family getting fed that evening or not.

A bit of geography second
For the benefit of non-UK readers, or exceptionally geographically challenged Brits, Cornwall is the long bit that sticks out on the bottom left of the UK. It's the first bit of England you come to after you've crossed the Atlantic or come up from the Bay of Biscay, so a lot of big ships used to come in there, which is why they have a big pilot gig racing tradition.

Langstone Cutters Gig Club, with whom I rowed, are considerably further east along the South Coast of England, in Hampshire, but Cornish Pilot Gig racing is a popular and growing sport, and it's nice that the gig love is being spread.

What's different?
These are the personal observations of a fine boat river rower/Thames skiffer, and do not pretend to constitute expert opinion on the sport of gig rowing, but they should be helpful starting points for others like me who ever venture out in a gig.
  1. They're heavy.
  2. It's fixed seat, and there six rowers rowing sweep oar, sitting offset away from the blade. In the boat I was in, stroke rowed with her  blade going out out their left, which I think is standard. This leads to the next point.
  3. Strokeside is bowside, and vice versa.
  4. The thole pin on the left is sacrificial.
    They use thole pins, but not as skiffers know them. They're just round dowels, tapering towards the bottom. Fascinatingly, the bow-most one is made out of some kind of hard wood, but the stern-most one is soft wood and is deliberately "sacrificial", so that it breaks if the rower catches a particularly bad crab. Apparently the record for broken tholes by a  single oarsman in an outing is four.
  5. They're heavy. 
  6. There are no buttons.
  7. Your outside hand holds the blade in an UNDER-hand grip (still with thumb over the end). Having your hands holding the handle in opposite directions makes the blade stay square and with the right amount of inboard (which it otherwise won't do because of the lack of button).
  8. Your feet just rest against a wooden bar that has four widely-spaced adjustments: there are no footstraps.
  9. If you catch a crab, you lift the handle up so the blade comes out from between the thole pins.
  10. They're heavy.
  11. Monogrammed cushion comfort, in club colours,
    including for the cox, I was delighted to see!
    The upholstery is extremely sophisticated. I experienced serious cushion envy.
  12. Gloves are de rigeur (rather than being accessories of shame whose wearing has to be hotly justified, as in other rowing circles).
  13. "Toss oars" means "put your blade vertical", as all of us who have rowed in the Queen's Rowbarge Gloriana know.
  14. Really, they're very heavy.


  1. Hmmm... not sure about some of the comments.
    The under / over grip doesn't have much to do with keeping the inboard regular, you can do that well enough with the 'normal' grip (and frankly a surprising number of gig rowers don't manage it even with the under / over grip). It's more to do with increasing stroke length, and thus efficiency.
    Gloves are most definitely NOT de rigeur. They're generally used by softies and Fairy Liquid using ladies.
    Tossing oars more usually refers to the practice of the bowman lifting his paddle from bow side over to stroke side, when rounding a mark to aid the turn, as we row anti-clockwise round a course. Incidentally, this is also necessary when sailing a gig, since due to the up wind inefficiency of the lugg rig, the boat usually needs to be rowed through the wind when tacking.
    Glad you enjoyed the cushions but they're still little protection against gig-arse.
    And yes, they are heavy compared to a fine boat, but pretty light compared to most traditional rowing boats of similar size.
    Gig rowing.... sport of titans!

  2. Thanks for your expert input, Matt - as I said, they were only my observations from the experience I had!
    I was a bit surprised about the gloves too, but the experienced people I was with told me they were essential (even though I have nicely calloused hands) - delighted to hear that they're not!