Some incidents or episodes in my books have their seeds way back, way way back before the idea for the book was even a twinkle in my mind’s eye – is there is such a thing as a twinkling mind’s eye? Many years ago, maybe fifteen, there was a young woman who worked part-time behind the bar in the Dolphin. She was such a friendly person and whenever it was a quiet night and she wasn’t busy, we used to sit at the bar and chat. She and I hit it off even though I was a good deal older than her.
She came from the Isles of Scilly, somewhere I’ve never been but would love to go. I used to talk to her a lot about it and she would describe island life. She was a teacher during the day, like me, and her hobby was rowing – unlike me, but I have a deep connection to the sport. It was part of my life as a child in Cambridge; my dad had been an oarsman but by the time I was a child he coached various eights, riding along the bank of the River Cam, shouting at them through a megaphone. I tried rowing when I was in my twenties, but I couldn’t keep in time, and with my left right thing I was pretty hopeless, and I suspect, too old!
The young woman didn’t do the sort of rowing I had attempted, she was a gig rower. A gig is a type of sea rowing boat:
Back in the mid-19th Century, around 200 men worked as pilots on the Isles of Scilly. Today, gigs (specially-designed sea-faring rowing boats with six oarsmen and a coxswain) are raced purely for pleasure particularly throughout Cornwall and the south west of England. Their heritage on Scilly, meanwhile, remains very much a part of island life – dating back to the days when they helped incoming ships to navigate the waters, smuggled goods from abroad and performed daring rescues.
The islands were the first port of call after a long Atlantic crossing for fresh supplies or repairs. A ship would pick up a pilot to guide them safely into the shelter of St. Mary’s pool. When a ship signalled with a flag for a pilot, the gigs would race to get there first and claim the job – and the payment.
Gigs often doubled as lifeboats too, as they were quick to launch and could row straight out into a headwind. With their shallow draft, they were ideal for slipping between rocks and going alongside shipwrecks – although it was dangerous work and many men lost their lives or damaged their boats.
My young friend was a member of the women’s club on the Isles of Scilly, and I was fascinated by what she told me – how historical it was, how exciting it was, what good fun it was. She and her friends were going to enter a trans-Atlantic gig race and she was training hard for it. I don’t know whether she ever took part in the race as she left the pub and I had no way of keeping in touch as were only very casual acquaintances. I’d investigated gigs and gig rowing/racing, and for some reason it stayed in a corner of my mind.
When I began to write my 1950’s novel, for some unknown reason, one of the characters, Mike Scott’s best friend Adam, was in the local Easthope gig racing crew, and would go out in the evenings after work to practice. The main character Mike Scott was always envious of his friend’s physical prowess, but would gladly report on the rowing club news for the Easthope Bugle, the paper he worked for. When he watched Adam out on the sea with his crew I described what he saw, how exciting it was – remembering the crews my dad had coached, even though they were pulling on a river, not the sea, and they had sliding seats, not fixed ones, I could till transpose my memories into my story.
Then one day, down in Cornwall, in the lovely small village of Charlestown, while wandering around I came across the Charlestown Rowing Club, and the boats they rowed were not eights, but gigs! I was just about to photograph an information board when a friendly man who was about to go into the boat shed, asked if I’d like to have a look. I was very excited, I can tell you! I went in and asked lots of questions and took loads of photos and was really interested in everything. He was dashing off to a training session, so I thanked him very much and left, my head full of images and ideas for my Mike Scott story, now I had actually seen a gig and its oars close up.
I decided to do more research to add detail to my story – imaging perhaps my character Adam’s father might have been a rower before him back in the 1920’s, and maybe the grandfather had been one too – but not rowing for sport but as a pilot boat or carrying goods. I’m sure gig type boats must have been around for centuries, but apparently the first documented mention of a gig used in a rescue was from 1666; ‘Ye Shippe Royal Oake’ was wrecked just off the Isles of Scilly in a terrible storm. Gigs from the largest of the Isles, St Mary’s managed to rescue the survivors. The gigs were used to ferry pilots out to ships, and also to take goods from ships and bring them ashore – the first gigs to the ship got the job! The rowers had to be strong and fast to get to the ships first – from that it was pretty obvious that the sport developed of racing against each other for fun and glory. As engines replaced muscle, as with so many forms of transport, man-powered boats could not match boats with engines, and gradually the gigs fell out of use by the end of the nineteenth century. There was a brief revival of gig racing as a sport after the first war, Once again the sport declined between the wars, and by the 1950’s only a handful of boats survived, although some were very old.
So this is my dilemma; in my imaginary town of Easthope, would there be sufficient gigs to have races when there were only so few in reality? By 1956, four years after my story is set there were only thirteen in the whole world, and my story is set in 1952, before some of the Cornish gigs were built. I know in fiction you can do anything, but that’s a mighty big twist away from actual facts!
I’m sorry my featured image of one of Charlestown Rowing Club’s gigs is a bit truncated, I was so excited to be there and quickly snapped off a few photos!
This is a really interesting site to tell you more, from the Charlestown Rowing Club:
… and more here from the Lyme Regis Gig Club, and the Visit Isles of Scilly page: