For an 'oarsome' gig head to the islands
SCILLY'S World Gig Championships just keep rolling along as the islands gear up for this year's event.
In 24 years the event has burgeoned from modest origins into the undreamed-of spectacle that it is today.
An extraordinary flotilla of 132 gigs are scheduled to line up over the weekend making it arguably the foremost maritime assembly in the South West region.
Decks are being cleared, flags put out and preparations made for the famed food "tunnel", where once just a modest tea urn and cake stall sufficed. Beer barrelage has reportedly already gone through the roof.
For three or four mad days the islands' population is more than doubled. It's a shattering, if temporary, switch from torpor to overdrive. A three-cop mainland back-up force (codename Operation Chunter) to assist the local trio is due in case of a disorder that never happens.
For weeks a steady stream of gigs has rolled off the ship to their temporary anchorage at Longstone.
A hectic weekend lies ahead before RMV Scillonian, crazily listing from the sheer numbers lining the rails , casts off on the Monday afternoon.
In the 1990 inaugural year a mere 17 gigs (12 visiting) took to the water with trophies from the back of a lorry.
The chairman at the time –to an overwhelmingly positive response asked: "Shall we do this again?"
The organisers had feared a reaction deriding the event's global tag as a grandiose concept making the islands look a bit silly. They needn't have.
"I'm flabbergasted," admitted chairman Rick Persich.
"At a time of recession we have five more gigs than last year. And we now have a newly arrived sports injury specialist islander who will be on hand to treat anyone who pulls a muscle or sprains a joint," he added.
Even the veterans' sections have attracted 52 male entrants and 56 women, while for those longer in tooth and claws (also known as the "super-vets) the banner is carried by 19 men's and 16 women's crews.
The sailing race that traditionally closes the weekend on the Monday has attracted six entrants, who will compete for a model of a pilot gig under dipping lug sail. It will be presented by the trustees of Scilly's oldest charity the Pilot Widows' Trust.
In the event's fledgling years Scilly, fittingly set the pace. Then for well over a decade it was Caradon from Tamarside – an amazing 12 titles in 13 years. More recently the dominance has swung to the west of the county where it has been all Falmouth for both the men and women.
From intelligence drifting into the islands there appears to be little reason to suspect any change in the running order this year taking into account Falmouth's power, professionalism and focus – again men and women – who, remarkably have done the double three times 2002,2011 and 2012. Success this year, with the somehow menacingly named Black Rock, would gave them a true hat-trick – three years on the trot.
It is unlikely that there will be many, if any, new names among those contesting Falmouth's primacy.
Main challenges are expected to come from old familiar faces – last year's runners-up Looe and third-placed Caradon, plus the likes of 2008 champions Mount's Bay; Par Bay, the back-to-back 2009-10 winners; and five times bridesmaid but never-the-bride Roseland.
More than a passing interest will focus on the indomitable Dutch in their Scilly-built, newly launched gig Sea Hero.
Interest in the event has grown each year, with more clubs being formed and more gigs built. The gospel according to the Cornish pilot gig – launched initially as "Project X" to keep it under wraps until it happened –has spread to all corners. Contestants flock to the tiny island not only from this side of the Tamar.
Mr Persich said: "This year a club from Hampshire, rejoicing under the racy name of Langstone Cutters, is taking part and a club in Essex is talking about attending.
"No doubt next year the new Northern Irish club will be heading out this way.
"With money being short these days once you've got a gig it's quite a cheap sport."
New gigs taking part include Smudger (Dart), The Vilt (Flushing and Mylor), Spirit of Langstone (of the aforementioned Langstone Cutters), Tempest (Lyme Regis), Pulpit Rock and Chesil (both Portland).
"As well as the new Dutch gig built by Scilly's Peter Martin, I know the St Ives club has a new gig."
In past years Scilly has seen crews from Holland, Ireland, France, Wales, USA and the Faroe Islands. This will be the first time that the Dutch club is the only international entrant, but overall the number of clubs taking part, around 60, is up – a testament to the sport's explosive impact.
For a gig rower Scilly is the only place to be this weekend, and while it is, perhaps, written in the stars that the ultimate prizes rest with the handful of aforementioned clubs, as past experience tells us, the overall comeraderie and mere taking part is sufficient for most.
That is why the World event – over in just three days – is so appealing: the rowers are assembled like no other event in the gig calendar.
On the mainland logistics decree the rowers hitch up a trailer and drive to the regatta. Once the races are over they rehitch and hit the road for home.
The Isles of Scilly has them captive and marooned with other like-minded people; talk focuses on thole pins, stretchers and their passion for the sport, coupled with a fair amount of drinking which, perhaps, is only to be expected with a such a lung-busting and thirst-inducing activity.
"The format will be as usual," said Rick.
"Crews and gigs need to get off the beach and to the start line ready for the race, otherwise the whole thing falls behind.
"To help with that I have as my beachmaster, the "trained rottweiler" Craig Dryden, who happens to be the chief planning officer on the Isles of Scilly Council.
"He'll have no problems growling at everyone," joked Rick.