BELFAST — Like mailmen of yore, serious rowers are undeterred by rain or cold or, perhaps, even the dark of early evenings. Those are often the conditions that greet the serious oarsmen and women who train in Belfast Harbor in a small fleet of Cornish pilot gigs owned by the Belfast’s Come Boating! community rowing program.
At the beginning of May, 18 Belfast rowers, a few spouses and assorted supporters — 24 in all — travelled to the Isles of Scilly at the mouth of the English Channel to take part in the 29th annual World Pilot Gig Championship. The three-day event brought together boats representing dozens of rowing clubs dotted around the British Isles and two “foreigners”: a club from Holland and the teams representing the Come Boating! rowing program.
In all, nearly 150 Pilot Gigs—narrow, wooden six-oared pulling boats — were on hand for the scheduled men’s and women’s races in St. Mary’s Harbor on May 4, 5 and 6.
“It looked like a Viking invasion,” Ethan Shaw, one of the Belfast rowers, said during a conversation including a half-dozen of the group held, appropriately in a pub overlooking the Belfast waterfront.
While this was just the 29th championship event, the history of Cornish pilot gigs, and competition among them, dates back centuries.
The Cornish peninsula juts out into the sea at the southwest corner of England. Like much of Maine, its coast is rockbound, with cliffs guarded by treacherous ledges.
Cornwall’s tiny harbors at the entrance to the English Channel were often the first ports of call for the sailing ships that once carried the world’s commerce from far away lands to the heart of the British Empire. Those journeys were hard, and often the most dangerous part of the voyage was making a safe landing on England’s southern coast.
Cornish pilot gigs evolved as fast rowing boats in the sometime in the 17th century, maritime historians say, and were first used as a shore-based lifeboat to rescue sailors who’s ships had wrecked off the coast.
As their name implies, the narrow, six-oared gigs also raced harbor pilots out to incoming ships. The pilot in the boat that arrived first usually got the job of guiding the ships into port, and the pay that went with it. Occasionally, it is said, the gigs carried smugglers evading the forces of the Royal Revenue Service.
While there are now all sorts of modern variants of the boat, the true Cornish pilot gig —and the boats the Belfast rowers raced — is a six-oared rowing boat, built of Cornish narrow leaf elm, 32 feet long with a beam of 4 feet 10 inches. In racing trim, it carries a coxswain as part of the crew.
The World Championships weren’t the first outing for the Come Boating! teams. Pilot gig racing has become popular around New England, with a season that extends from February or March, at least in southern New England, through October. One major event takes place in Gloucester — a long-distance race
Despite practicing their rowing a long way away from the source of the boats, the Come Boating! Rowers are at home in the Cornish pilot gig. The organization owns three of them, the newest only recently completed at the O’Donovan & Dole boatshop in Searsport. Named for longtime member Malcolm Gater, described by Shaw as the Belfast organization’s “godfather of racing,” the new Malcolm G was built of wood to a set of plans that Come Boating! acquired from the Cornish Gig Pilot Association in Cornwall.
The boat got a workout, too, as the Belfast rowers prepared for their overseas debut. Throughout the winter, the team met to train three times a week and got lots of support from “family, the community and employers,” said Come Boating!’s president, Susan Cutting.
“I’m still impressed with the dedication of the team, women’s stroke oar Leigh Dorsey said. “Everyone was working full time jobs.”
Belfast rowed their borrowed pilot gig Morvoren (Mermaid in the Cornish language) in three events: a men’s race; a ladies race; and a “ladies vets” race. All members of the “vets” crew had to be at least 40 years old.
“Our boat had three guys in their 50s,” Shaw said of the men’s crew and was “competing against much younger crews.”
The races were all about a mile in length, so the boats were sprinting all the way. To maintain some order with such a large fleet, boats were organized by groups of 12, with the top two finishers in each group moving up into the next highest class and the bottom two dropping down.
Of the three boats, it was the “ladies” who did best, advancing through their fleet into one of the top three groups by the end of event.
As excited as they were about their Scilly adventure, all of the rowers seemed most interested in promoting Come Boating! Started 18 years ago, the non-profit offers “free rowing for anyone” from its boathouse on Belfast Harbor,” Cutting said. “We wanted to connect people with the bay to enjoy the water.”
Generally, the organization’s docks are out from June 1 through October and it offers at least one row a day, more if the demand is there, in a Cornish pilot gig with an experienced coxswain to “anyone who signs up.”
This year, the program got an early start with its All Things Nautical Yard Sale and season Launch Day festivities last Saturday, and the group was counting on a good turnout.
“It’s not like a rowing club,” racing coordinator Steffanie Pyle said. “It’s a community organization open to everybody.”