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Pilot Gig History

The pilot gig has a long history in both Appledore and the South West and refers to a 32' by 4'6" clinker-built rowing boat with six rowers and a cox. Originally gigs were used to take pilots out to sailing ships and competition for work dictated that the first pilot aboard the ship got the job. With function dictating form, gigs evolved into very fast seagoing rowing boats, used for piloting, lifesaving and at times smuggling.

It was a natural progression to start racing such craft and in the late-19th and early-20th centuries such sport was as popular and hard fought as it is today. Sadly the introduction of reliable marine engines and accurate charts brought about the demise of the pilot gig as a working boat. If it had not been for the dedication and enthusiasm of a few individuals and clubs, both the pilot gig and the sport we know and love today might not have survived. Today we play our part in keeping the tradition alive for future generations to enjoy.

We are grateful for the article below by David Carter, the author of Illustrated History of Appledore, detailing the historical regattas of Appledore and Bideford and the racing of various sized gigs.

I suppose the outstanding red letter day of the year was Regatta day held in early August. The Quay, furnished with stalls and decorations, was lined with crowds four or five deep to watch the races, and all barges, vessels and steamers moored off or alongside were similarly decorated and beflagged to make a really jolly and exciting scene. Very popular were the novel or comedy events, such as the Gig and Punt chase. One man in a small punt, usually with a shovel for propulsion, weaved in and out of the crowd of moored boats, pursued by a team in the gig, which was a large four-oared rowing boat. The gig crew, which also had a fifth member to steer by means of an oar over the stern, did their best to catch and capsize the single man, but as the punt was more manoeuvrable, he was often more than a match for the larger boat. The Miller and Sweep battle provided lots of laughs and entertainment as one boat with about four crew threw bags of soot at a boat similarly manned, but stacked with bags of flour as ammunition. Often nearby spectator boats accidentally received some of the barrage, and the end was usually resolved after all the missiles had been despatched, with all eight begrimed and besooted matelots in the water trying to remove some of the clinging and uncomfortable evidence of an energetic engagement. More serious, although still a novel form of entertainment, was the Elopement race. The males lined up to row their boats the length of the course to where their spouses were waiting to join them and help row the boat back down the course, striving to be first across the finishing line. An extension of this was the 50-50 race. Boats, each with a crew of five, would sail at least half a mile down to the Pool. When they reached a set mark, sail and mast would have to be stowed before commencing to row back four-oared to the winning post.

A main part of the Regatta programme was occupied by West of England Clubs competing in four-oared and two-oared outrigged gigs, which at Appledore we used to call wherries. Bideford had two rowing clubs which had been established for over fifty years - Bideford Amateur Rowing Club (the Reds) and Bideford Amateur Athletic Club (the Blues). Appledore lads were regular members of the crews, mainly the former club, so most shouts of encouragement from spectators were 'Come on the Red'. These local rowing clubs competed against others in Regattas throughout Devon and Cornwall, and the winners gaining most points at the end of the season would be awarded highly prized and coveted West of England Championship cups. At many regattas they would be joined by clubs from other parts of the country mainly Southampton, London and S.E. Areas.

Bideford Regatta

Bideford Regatta, always held in September, concentrated mainly on the official gig rowing races, but festivities including a Sports Day, a Carnival, a Fireworks display and a large Fun-fair, usually extended the celebrations to a week. The fair, with many side-shows and stalls, occupied the whole of the Pill area, the river bank, and part of the Quay opposite the Art School. The bumping cars we found most popular - a nice, legitimate way for boys to disperse some of their aggression. After dark with the lights produced by throbbing steam engines, the music, and the cheerful crowds, it was a magic fairyland, with the one snag that we soon ran out of pocket money to enjoy it to the full.'

© David Carter

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