Rowing a pilot gig boat in a race is as much a strand of island life as the long blades of kelp weaving their way through the crystal-clear waters under Jo William’s glass bottom boat in the paradise Isles of Scilly.
Mother of two Jo has lived on St Martin’s since she was eight and spent eighteen years escorting divers and sea life photographers out to the wreck and wildlife sites all around her home island and neighbouring St Mary’s Tresco, Bryher and St Agnes.
Then she changed her career course three years ago by acquiring The Sea Quest and now spends her working days taking visitors out to view some of the underwater wonders around this myriad of islands.
I met Jo when she picked my family and I up from the Lower Town Quay right outside the island’s Karma St Martins Hotel to take us on a trip around the nearby Round Island Light.
I always write a piece about a different aspect of island life on my annual visit to Scilly and had decided this year to concentrate on the popular pilot gig rowing tradition so it was fortuitous to learn that Jo had been a former member of the St Martin’s woman’s team.
But not only that, because she was a member of the St Mary’s woman’s crew that actually won the world championships in 2001 and 2003.
“That experience was utterly amazing and I think we partied for several days afterwards,” she recalled.
The Cornish pilot gig racing tradition dates back to the end of the 18th century when these sturdy little boats were used to row pilots out to meet homeward bound sailing ships and naturally it soon developed into a race with the fastest crew winning a ship’s custom.
While the inter-island races run from May to September with hundreds of holiday makers taking to the waters in a flotilla of launches to wave and cheer the teams on, the World Pilot Gig Racing Championships scheduled for next May Bank Holiday weekend after a two- year Covid intermission, are organised completely separately.
Today Jo keeps her links with the rowing tradition by using the Sea Quest to tow the St Martin’s gig the Dolphin and its male or female crews out to the start of the inter-island races and then back again afterwards.
Chairman of the St Martin’s club is Jack Gillett, who helps his parents Ben and Caroline run the island’s popular camp site.
He started rowing when he was fourteen and has just taken a step back from this very physical island pastime because he and his wife Izzy now have a son Rowan.
But his sister Ella is still keeping up the family tradition first started by their dad by coxing the men’s team.
“Gig racing is such an intrinsic part of island life with all its friendly competition and great camaraderie and although we are all fiercely competitive out on the water, we are all the best of friends back in the pub afterwards,” he said.
There were some eight inter island club races on the course ranging between one and a quarter and three and a half miles in length and the state of the tide, wind and currents made each race entirely different, Jack explained.
Meanwhile over on the main island of St Mary’s dominated by its magnificent Elizabethan Star Castle, anyone peering over its ramparts back in the 17th Century would surely have seen the pilot gigs putting to sea to meet an inward bound sailing ship.
Today it is owned by the Francis family and run by James Francis and his wife Ella, who also rowed for a local woman’s team for over ten years before having children discouraged further participation.
Chairman of the World Championship organising committee is islander Kevin Sherris, who spent eight years sailing the world in the Merchant Navy before returning home to retrain as a plumber.
He told how it was during a family after dinner conversation back in 1989 that the idea of staging a world championship event in and around the islands, because they were the perfect venue, was first mooted.
“We had just nineteen gigs competing that first year but it quickly captured the maritime imagination so much so that the event grew and grew over the years with crews even coming from as far away as the USA and there were 160 crews competing in 2019,” he said.
“A lot of youngsters like me growing up in the islands start messing about in boats and I guess joining a gig club from the age of fourteen is just a natural progression,” he said.
But Kevin said entries, including the island gigs, would be capped at 132 for the 2022 championships.
Peter Crawford, a long serving master of the islands’ passenger and supply vessel MV Scillonian and its consort the freighter Gry Maritha, told how they would begin ferrying a flotilla of gig boats from Penzance to St Marys in the weeks prior to the championships and then back again afterwards and had been doing so pretty much ever since the championships were launched.
“It’s just another part of our service in support of these magnificent islands and their communities,” he said.