Monday, May 20, 2013

Rowing a Cornish Pilot Gig - National Maritime Day Belfast Maine

   So what is a Cornish Pilot Gig?

   It's a narrow  6 person rowing boat, traditionally made of elm, 32 feet long and almost 5 feet wide.  Cornish Pilot Gigs got their start off Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.  It was as a general work boat, but was particularly used to race pilots out to vessels off the Atlantic.  The piloting job would often go to the first pilot to get to the vessel. 

   But if it looks familiar, it probably because these boats were also the design used for land-based life rescue craft.  When I see the Belle Fast  or Selkie race by, I can't help but recall the song, Grace Darling, and imagine Grace Darling and her father heading out in a similar craft to rescue sailors off the Farne Islands in 1838.

   The Selkie and Belle Fast are boats used by Come Boating in Belfast.  In 2012, Come Boating commissioned a third boat for the organization, the Malcolm G. , which was built in nearby Searsport and named for the man who started the rowing organization.

    That Belfast should have a rowing association is remarkable for many reasons.  Belfast is a small city, with a population in 2011 of only 6,671.  Despite that they have one of the few curling rinks in the area.  Secondly, if you've ever tried to put together a kayaking activity, you know how hard that it is to coordinate the schedules of just a few people.  Now imagine putting together an organization which needs seven people, six of whom will be sitting backwards.  Imagine further that you do this not once, but 22 times a week!  And you convince seven dedicated people to compete in races like the 20 mile Blackburn Challenge!   Impressive!

  I went to National Maritime Day, not only because I can't resist checking out big boats, but because I wanted to try a Cornish Pilot Gig.  And I wasn't alone.  Four other ladies were quick to sign up.

   We were led on our adventure by Jonathan, with Terry serving as rower 1.  We all know Durhamblogger is dedicated to kayak safety and wearing PFD's. I think he may have a kindred spirit in Terry, who has a life ring tattooed on her leg.

     Our Cornish Gig was the Selkie, otherwise known as the green boat.

     This is the Selkie at the Come Boating berth.  Note two of the seats have cushioning on them.
     This is the boat from another angle:

  Cornish Pilot Gigs are built based on the measurements of a 1838 gig, called the Teffry, which still races.  I'm a tall woman, the height of an average American male.  I suspect the original rowers may have been a bit smaller than me.  I don't know if the supports in the middle are part of the original design, or something added later.  I'm pretty sure the foam padding is not from the original design.
  Our first lessons were vocabulary.  The first term we learned was "laying on."  Before climbing aboard, one calls out "laying on."  Before getting off one calls out "laying off."  This allows the others on the boat to brace for rocking.
     Rower 5 is preparing to help Rower 6 (Terry) lay on.  I like this photo because it also shows the foot braces we'd use when rowing.
     Once we'd all laid on, the oars were distributed.  Oars are fiberglass shafts with wooden handles.  The oars are numbered. 

  Oarlock and rowers all faced the stern, only the coxswain faced forward.  We reviewed who were starboard and port rowers.  The boat side is determined by where the blade of the oar was, not which side the rower sat on.  And quite a bit of time was spent talking about crabbing.  Crabbing occurs when the angle of the blade is wrong.  Sometimes its because its been twisted, other times a wave hits it wrong.  If you've ever paddled a tandem with a child or handicapped individual, you probably know how much bracing you need if they get the blade angle wrong.  (that's why I recommend using Greenland style paddles in those cases.)  But on a Pilot Gig, if the blade angle is wrong the oar handle will knock you off your seat and throw the boat off rhythm.  Jonathan recommended yelling "Crab!" should that happen, and Terry confessed that should she crab, she might cry out a different four letter word.  In any case, we'd be forewarned.

   We put paddles up (held between our knees) while moving away from the dock, and got paddles ready, or in their oarlock once ready to paddle.  I don't remember the precise instruction to begin rowing, but it was something like "Begin rowing together."  Of that command, "together" was the important part, because on "together"  Rower 6 was supposed to get her blade in the water and begin an even stroke, starting with her hands over her toes and pulling back, using core muscles, until the oar handle was near her chest.  Everyone else was supposed to match Rower 6.  That was easy for me, as Rower 4,  all I needed to do was watch her blade and keep in time.  However it was a challenge for Rower 5, who needed to watch Terry's back and work from that information.  Brave Naily (sp?)  was selected to be Rower 5 based on her confession that she had rowed before.  That it was when she was thirteen gave her no mercy.

  The coxswain does not call out each stroke, he just told us when to start, and we were to continue until directed otherwise.  Rowing is a full body exercise, and at least for this beginner, took all my concentration as well.  As long as the oars are, as close as the seats are, it's very important to keep in precise rhythm.  There was no time for breaks, and as Mark was in Cambridge, MA (population: 105,162, Cornish Pilot Gigs: 0) there was no way to take pictures.  The group in action in the top photo was caught on a paddle in December 2012.

   I have this photo from when we took a break mid harbor.  Our oars are stored at rest beneath the gunnel and Jonathan is demonstrating good rowing technique.

      It was an beautiful day, and a wonderful time.  Belfast is an amazing city, and always a great place to visit.   On our run we went part way across the harbor and then back to shore.  Come Boating runs are for an hour, with about 40 minutes rowing.  Sometimes a rowing session might go out to the monument, or if the tide was right, up the Passy.  There are three levels, Community Boating for beginners and Exercise and Power rows for more advanced rowers.  Jonathan told us to check out Gig Races on youtube, and mentioned that racers aim for forty strokes a minute.  I think we may have done ten strokes per minute, which was exercise enough for me.  but here's a link to a short youtube video of the 2008 Championship, held off the Isles of Scilly.


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