how to gig race

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The Independent Culture
In a stiff breeze and steep running swell, half a dozen heavy open boats, each rowed by six strong volunteers, race through the heaving sea. Spray flies from their bows. Sometimes blades and boats clash as they struggle to be first round a marker buoy.

Each bent back swings in a skilled rhythm and muscles strain with every rower knowing there is still a long way to go to the finishing line.

This is gig racing, "the fastest growing sport in Britain", according to its supporters. Each gig is more than 30 feet long and weighs around a third of a tonne. They compete over distances of up to three miles in estuaries and the open sea around the West Country. This is not sliding- seat skiff rowing, it is tough lung-bursting, arm-aching effort every inch of the way, with each stroke urged on by the cox.

The sport has caught on so fast in the past 10 years that more than 20 clubs have been formed around the coast of Cornwall, the county where the sport was born.

During the same period, more than 30 new gigs have been built, at a cost in excess of pounds 10,000 each. On most weekends at least 50 crews bend their backs in all weathers in contests around the coast.

At night in the pubs at resorts like Falmouth, Par Bay and Looe, the bars ring with traditional West Country sea songs, as the exhausted crews relax and replace their lost sweat with pints of beer.

But, while the sport of gig racing is currently a modern phenomenon, the gig itself is steeped in nautical history - the boats acted as pilot cutters, privately-owned lifeboats and even smugglers' craft a 100 years and more ago.

In the days before radio, the first a harbour master knew of a ship's arrival was when the tips of its mast appeared above the horizon. Straight away the gig chase was on, as rival pilots, grain importers and carpet baggers raced out from the harbour towards the new arrival.

The first vessel to arrive had the best chance of securing any business the ship might have to offer the local community.

One man who has built many of the new generation of gigs is Ralph Bird. To visit him as he labours is to go back in time to the last century - appropriately the age of the gig.

Wood shavings litter the floor, hand tools line the walls and the visitor is entranced with the impression that nothing has changed in the last 100 years.

Bird, President of the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, labours alone for almost six months over each boat. Each vessel is crafted from narrow-leafed Cornish Elm, a wood that is increasingly hard to find. "Every gig I make is different. You can never make two boats exactly the same," he says.

As he works, he tells of the early days of the gigs. Although it was a working boat, there was such a pride taken in local gigs that teams were formed purely to compete for money. A boat could win as much as pounds 12 on a single race - good money to share between six men in 1850.

The crews became highly accomplished and so fast that they were hard to catch: customs and excise men of the day deemed it illegal to build gigs for more than six oarsmen.

Competition for business was also keen. Sometimes a crew would receive a private tip that a ship was coming down the coast. They would slip socks over their boots and creep through the sleeping village, hoping to launch their gig in silence, under the cover of darkness, ahead of their rivals.

By the 1970s there were only one or two gigs still known to exist, on the Isles of Scilly and at Newquay. But, once they were rescued and restored, Ralph Bird borrowed some of them in the 1980s and organised races on his local Restronguet river.

From that small beginning much of today's growing enthusiasm for the sport has arisen.

The Men's and Women's Cornish County Championships are being held this weekend in Newquay, Cornwall. Further information from the Cornwall Tourist Board (01872 74057)