The history of the Cornish Pilot Gig dates back to the late 18th century in Cornwall, England.
The Cornish Pilot Gig would transport pilots, using the additional passenger seat located in the bow, out to incoming ships. The pilots were experienced sailors who guided these larger vessels safely through the challenging waters and into the safety of the harbour, particularly during storms or in areas with shallow or rocky bottoms.
Pilot gigs were originally built as fast rowing boats traditionally made of wood, typically with a length of around 32 feet and a crew capacity of six to eight rowers. The design of the gig was critical for stability, speed, and maneuverability, ensuring the pilot reached the ship safely and efficiently. In many harbour towns there might have been more than one gig with its crew striving to get their pilot to an approaching ship first in the hope of securing the business.
Over time, the demand for pilot gigs decreased and with the rise of newer and larger boats these traditional vessels began to disappear. Fortunately, a small number of gigs survived and were preserved by boat builders who recognised their historical and cultural significance.
In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in pilot gigs as recreational rowing and racing boats. Several clubs began to form throughout Cornwall to promote gig rowing as a sport and to preserve this important piece of maritime heritage.
These days there are numerous gig rowing clubs around the coast, not only in Cornwall but also in other parts of the United Kingdom and even across the channel in Holland. It has a governing body called the CPGA, the Cornish Pilot Gig Association under which the clubs operate to strict code of practice to ensure fair play on the water!
Each club typically owns one or more gigs and competes in races and regattas throughout the year with the highlight in the month of May on The Scillies when the World Pilot Gig Championships take place! Well over a hundred gigs are transported to the islands for a weekend of racing and celebrations. Quite a spectacle it is too!
The Cornish Pilot Gig has become a symbol of the maritime history and heritage of Cornwall. It is not only enjoyed by rowers but also admired by spectators who appreciate the skill, teamwork, and physical endurance required in this traditional sport.
The revival of the Cornish Pilot Gig has not only helped preserve this historic craft but also strengthened the sense of community and camaraderie among its rowing enthusiasts. The gigs are handmade and every year new boats are built and added to the growing fleet, ensuring the continued legacy of this beautiful vessel.