From smuggling runs to dramatic rescues; the history of our pilot gigs
Back in the mid-19th Century, around 200 men worked as pilots on the Isles of Scilly. With the 2018 World Pilot Gig Championships taking place this year 4th to 6th May, we take a brief look at how pilot gigs have carved through our waters throughout history.
Today, gigs (specially-designed sea-faring rowing boats with six oarsmen and a coxswain) are raced purely for pleasure particularly throughout Cornwall and the south west of England. Their heritage on Scilly, meanwhile, remains very much a part of island life – dating back to the days when they helped incoming ships to navigate the waters, smuggled goods from abroad and performed daring rescues.
The islands were the first port of call after a long Atlantic crossing for fresh supplies or repairs. A ship would pick up a pilot to guide them safely into the shelter of St. Mary’s pool. When a ship signalled with a flag for a pilot, the gigs would race to get there first and claim the job – and the payment.
Gigs often doubled as lifeboats too, as they were quick to launch and could row straight out into a headwind. With their shallow draft, they were ideal for slipping between rocks and going alongside shipwrecks – although it was dangerous work and many men lost their lives or damaged their boats.
Shortly after World War II, the working life of the pilot gig diminished, but racing for pleasure soon became a pastime and a passion on the islands. To this day, throughout the summer, gig racing takes place every Wednesday and Friday evenings and of course, Scilly hosts the World Pilot Gig Championships very early May Bank Holiday.
Scilly hosted the first World Pilot Gig Championship in 1990 with just 19 boats from Cornwall and the islands. This year the islands will attract some 150 gigs – hosting men’s, ladies’ and veterans’ teams from as far away as the USA and Bermuda. The “champs”, have become an island spectacle as a carnival atmosphere descends across the archipelago.