World Pilot Gig Championships
The 2018 World Pilot Gig Championships will take place on the Isles of Scilly from Friday 4th May until Sunday 6th May. This is the 29th year that the event has taken place and each year it gets bigger and more crews attend and come from as far afield as Holland and the USA. The majority of participants, however, come from the South West where the wooden pilot gigs are still built locally and race regularly. The “champs”, have become an island spectacle as a carnival atmosphere descends across the archipelago. The veteran's race kicks off the proceedings on Friday night followed by men's and women's races on Saturday and Sunday.
A TRIBUTE TO THE PILOT GIG
The Isles of Scilly is home to the largest surviving fleet of 19th Century gigs. Today, they are raced purely for pleasure, but their heritage on Scilly remains very much a part of island life – from helping incoming ships to navigate the waters to smuggling and performing daring rescues.
The Isles of Scilly has long been associated with pilot gigs. 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, and some were used for smuggling goods, 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.
Scilly hosted the first World Pilot Gig Championship in 1990 with just 19 boats from Cornwall and the islands. This year, we welcome more than 150 gigs from as far away as Bermuda and the USA. The “Champs” - which take place every early May Bank Holiday weekend - have become an island spectacle as a carnival atmosphere descends across the archipelago.
A Beginners’ Guide to Champs Weekend
Here’s a potted guide for first-time visitors to “Champs weekend” – where the races start and finish, how the scoring works and best places to watch the spectacle...
1: Friday night is Vets night
This is when the Veterans and Super Vets race. There are four races, starting at 5.30pm going through to 8pm: Ladies’ Veterans & Super Vets, followed by Men’s Vets and Super Vets. The crews head out to the start line just off St. Agnes for the “Long Race” back into St Mary’s Quay. The winners of each are crowned the Vets / Super Vets World Champions.
2: The Long Race
The first races for the main Ladies’ and Men’s crews take place on Saturday afternoon. Once again the gigs head out to the start line off St Agnes in order to race back to St. Mary’s. It is quite a spectacle as 150 gigs line up – the start line is about a mile long!
As the gigs cross the finish line, their position is ranked so that they can be placed into groups: the first 12 gigs to cross the finish line go into in Group A, the second 12 gigs are put into in Group B, the third 12 gigs into Group C and so on.
3: Two up; two down
So now we have Rounds 2 and 3, the Group races. Round 2 takes place late Saturday afternoon; Round 3 on Sunday morning. First the ladies race, followed by the men. This time they race in their Groups from Nut Rock (close to Tresco) to St. Mary’s Quay. The lowest Group starts first in a continuing procession of races through to the Group A race.
The crews that come first or second in their races, move up to the Group above; those crews that come last or second last go down a Group. So, by the time the teams reach the final (Round 4), crews could have moved up (or down) by two Groups.
4: Score board
The score board is on Holgate’s Green, and depicts those teams that have moved up and down, as well as the starting line-up for their next race. Where crews come in their Group races determines their place on the starting line for the next race… the higher up you come in your races, the better your next starting spot (the middle of the field).
5: Raise your oars!
Sunday afternoon is when the World Champs are decided: the finals! The format is the same for Rounds 2 and 3, but as the gigs cross the line - lower Groups first again - they come together and congregate in St. Mary’s Harbour ready to welcome and celebrate the new world champions. As the Group A finalists fight to the finish, the roar of assembled spectators and rowers crescendos, and every crew member in every gig raises their oars to salute the new World Champions as they cross the line.
6: Top vantage points
If you want to be really close to the action, the best place to be is on a tripper boat, which you can hop on from St. Mary’s Quay. They do an amazing job of being where the action is and the fantastic atmosphere on the boats is second to none. The tripper boats go out for each of the long races and the rounds. You can get back to shore between the rounds but do be warned; you might yourself on the water for longer than you think, so wrap up warm.
For land lovers, a great place to watch the Long Races is on The Garrison. Or Rat Island just off St. Mary’s Quay, which his very close to the finish line. The coastline along from Juliet’s Garden is also a good vantage point for an overview of the Nut Rock races, but binoculars would be useful.
And head into Hugh Town and onto Holgate’s Green at any time during the weekend to soak up the incredible carnival atmosphere. ENJOY!