Gigs, or Cornish pilot gigs, to give them their full name date back to the late 17th century. As the name suggests they were primarily used to ferry harbour pilots out to larger sailing vessels where they would climb aboard and help navigate the ships way into difficult harbours. The gigs (and pilots) services were most in demand when a ship was in trouble, usually in heavy seas. For this reason the design of the pilot gig was such that it could quickly power through the waves and withstand the force of the sea.
Given the rugged Cornish coastline and the hazardous entry to many of its harbours there was plenty of work for the gig crews. The fees obtained for piloting a vessel in difficulty could be high and in cases where there was more than one pilot gig crew there would be a race to the ship with the winner taking the contract. So, as you can see the concept of gig racing dates back far beyond the modern day sport.
The pilot gigs were also the pioneers of the lifeboat service, rescuing sailors from floundering ships. The crews would be the same rowers who ferried the pilots with the job at hand not being so different. There are also plenty of tales suggesting gigs were used in smuggling - they would be obvious candidates for landing contraband and evading the customs men.
Whilst all these early gigs were generally similar in build over the years the design was consolidated and now all gigs are built to the specifications laid down by William Peters of St Mawes when he built the gig 'Treffry' in 1838. This design stipulates a six-oared rowing boat of 32 feet (9.8 m) in length with a beam of 4 feet 10 inches (1.47 m). The boat is to be built of narrow leaf elm, preferably Cornish.
Although the pilot gig was largely replaced by the arrival of the motor boat, the Cornish pilot gig is very much alive and experiencing something of a renaissance. Today, Peters' definitive gig, 'Treffry' is still actively rowed by Newquay Rowing Club, just one of over 100 clubs around the world. Around half of these clubs form the Cornish Pilot Gig Association; formed in 1986 the association governs the sport and was also responsible for ensuring any new gigs conform to the original specification.
World Pilot Gig Championships
Unsurprisingly, the majority of gig rowing clubs are located in Cornwall, with no less than 13 in the Isles of Scilly. It is on the Scillies that the annual World Pilot Gig Championships are held on the May Day bank holiday weekend. The championships have been run every year since 1990 and include crews from around the world. There are both men's and ladies' competitions with the longest race being between the islands of St Agnes to St Marys.