Gig racing: Trelawney's Navy takes to high seas

Gig racing is for all the family, serious rowers or those who pop into the pub in between races.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED are not Britain's only all conquering team. They have one down in Cornwall who are world champions and opened their new season at the weekend with a last-minute win.

It is gig racing we are talking about. Gigs are 32ft, six-man ocean-going rowing boats and racing them has become Britain's fastest growing sport.

The West country has gone gig crazy and from being very much a minor sport a decade ago it now has weekly events attracting as many as 1,500 rowers.

"Gig racing is the biggest single-event sport in the county," say Ted Gundry, secretary of the Cornish Gig Association. "It used to be just a local affair centred on Newquay and the Scilly Isles. Now it has spread all over the county, spilled over into Devon and is stretching further and further East. Gigs are springing up in Europe, America and Australia - all built to strict Cornish specifications.

"You could say that Trelawney's Army invaded Twickenham a week ago to cheer its team to victory in the rugby union County Championship. This week sees Trelawney's Navy take to the high seas in its gigs. Some of our craft were built in the early 1800s and they are still racing today, others are only a year or so old and some our still being built."

Gigs were originally designed as pilot boats. They would race out to meet sailing ships, the first there got the job, the rest "went hungry". Sometimes the gigs were rowed to France on night-time smuggling trips.

The gig, Newquay, built in 1812, is probably the oldest rowing boat in the world still in regular use.

The opening event of the 1999 championships was due to field 31 boats, but the number was cut to 20 by foul weather and even fouler Bank holiday traffic.

Marazion was the location with the sleek boats skimming across choppy waters under the shadow of the spectacular island of St Michael's Mount.

The course is a gruelling two and half miles with the faster boats covering the distance in just over 15 minutes.

Part of the charm of this muscle-bursting sport is the way that it involves all the family. There are races for men, women, juniors, veterans and mixed teams.

The Sullivan family were at Marazion in force. Three of them raced together in the Charlestown-based Tormentor - Mum, Katherine, a benefit agency worker, and her daughters Lauren, 15, and Claire, 16. Dad - Shane a salesman - also races.

Friends, families and fans packed the beach with aficionados correctly forecasting that Caradon, the world champions, in their white and red gig Mary Newman (named after Drake's first wife) would sweep the board again.

"They're just too bloody good," was their favourite moan of the day while at the same time admitting that while Caradon's crew of six footers take gigging extremely seriously; others see it as a great afternoon out in between sessions in the pub.

"They do training and keep themselves fit," said one horrified beer- bellied enthusiast.

But it all nearly went wrong. The Mary Newman - crewed by a fireman, two builders, a student, an engineer and a graphic designer - got off to a bad start. Half-way through the race they were trailing fifth and facing a tough last leg. Tough because they had to head into a north- easterly which was creating chop.

"Then all the training and all the preparation paid off," said graphic designer Martin Langdon. "We were able to find another gear and put on the power. And in the dying seconds we managed to score - just like Manchester United."

MARAZION RESULTS: Mens A Team: 1 Caradon 15min 46sec; 2 Falmouth 15.53; 3 Roseland 15.54. Mens B Team: 1 Caradon 15.36; 2 Par Bay 16.35; 3 Dart 16.39. Women's A: 1 Falmouth 17.57; 2 Charlestown 18.07; 3 Dart 18.35. Women's B: 1 Zennor 18.42; 2 Caradon 19.16; 3 Rame 21.03. Under-16s (1 mile): 1 Caradon 13.32; 2 Fowey 13.42; 3 Zennor 14.03.