World Pilot Gig Championships, May 2015

Coxing the Golden Eagle ladies gig crew during the 1.6 mile race from St Agnes to St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

“Give water, Golden Eagle!”

The coxswain of the Bedehaven is clear and insistent, and certainly has the right to be. Blocking his way to the start line, facing in the wrong direction, is us. His voice barely audible over a gathering force 4. A huddle of gigs has closed in and trapped us, as did the ice around Shackleton’s Endurance. Now barely a paddle’s length away, the huddle jostling about on a confused and troubled sea. No place for tight manoeuvring, and with just four minutes until the flag, nowhere for us to go.

When asked to cox a ladies crew in this year’s World Pilot Gig Championships, the first thought was a flashback to the start line of last year’s St Agnes race.

Perhaps one of the greatest spectacles in gig rowing, the course is unique and challenging, placing a high demand on crews regardless of experience. Each person I’ve met who’s rowed the 1.6 mile course can recall the race in detail: the physical exertion, the emotional highs and lows, and the small but significant victories of battling with, then pulling past another gig.

Quickly away from the start line, and we’re head boat! Maybe. Seconds later we could still be in the top-ten, but with the line of gigs stretching nearly a quarter of a mile it’s impossible to be sure. It’s a good start though, right on the “g” of GO!, and the crew are rowing well. The nerves of the few minutes before the flag have translated into energy, and we’re already at racing speed.

Crossing the channel from St Agnes to St Mary’s brings a change in conditions. The tide is racing, taking the field of gigs sideways across the course at a couple of knots. Heading into deeper water, the side-on waves are picking up and dropping the gig. Not good. Paddles are making poor contact, and the crew are levering hard to find water as the gig rides up and over the waves. Stroke rowers Vicki and Eve have shortened up to compensate, but we’ve lost speed, and the stronger crews have pushed past. It’s a lengthy and frustrating crossing to the Garrison, the crew hunting for water in the troughs of the waves, and the cold shock of spray breaching over the side.

Steval - two large triangular rocks off the western tip of the Garrison. We’ve crossed the channel, and within seconds the sea has changed from sloppy side-on to a grand rolling swell from behind. Paddles are soon making good bite in the water, and the next hard ten feels strong. The mood in the boat is transformed, the swell picks us up, and we start to fly.

Pulling around the Garrison shore in the crush of gigs is truly exhilarating. Each gig is picked up by the swell, and when it’s our turn we ride briefly ahead of the nearby gigs at top speed. We’ve got the inside line, and it’s a risky place to be. Nowhere to go if the outside gigs come too close, but a shorter line to the finish gives us a small advantage.

Gigs turning in droves around the rocks of the Newman causes a tight bottleneck, and the coxswain in the gig alongside is shrieking, a voice like rats going through a mangle.

There’s no greater competition than having a gig alongside, and for our crew, the most gruelling moments of the race are happening. Daisy and Rhi on bow side, facing an opposing crew, paddles overlapping, and close enough to see the whites of their eyes. Charlotte and Robyn facing the other way, out to Star Castle, almost blind to the battle taking place a few feet away. We make the final turn near the Bacon buoy, and now the last push for the finish.

The crew are exhausted, and although three races follow this, no effort is being saved for later. The sense of relief as the gig finally crosses the finish line is tangible, and we pull the last few strokes to take us into St Mary's harbour. Crowds of gigs are crossing over the finish behind us; the effort has been worthwhile.

I’ll never be quite sure how we got clear of Bedehaven so suddenly and so quickly before the start, and into such an ideal position - about a meter back from the line, and next to the buoy at the windward end of our section. But one thing I am sure of: if I’m asked to cox again next year there’ll be no hesitation and no reminiscing. I know already that the answer is yes.

This article was originally published in Scilly Now and Then issue 73. Jeremy has been rowing and coxing gig boats since 2004, and lives on the Isles of Scilly. You can find him on Twitter @jeremypearson