Rebel with a cause – Lyme Regis Gig Club
Nick Churchill examines the boats and people of the Lyme Regis Gig Club
Published in March ’16
‘It’s a big gulp of now! It’s being alive!’
Marcus Dixon is describing what it feels like to row a 32-foot Cornish pilot gig off Lyme Regis, pulling in sync as part of a six-person crew, hearing only the pulse of the oars as they break the sea and the occasional instruction from the cox in the stern.
‘You tend not to talk much, but there’s a Zen-like quality to the rhythm of the motion. On a Sunday morning as the town wakes up and the church bells start to toll, it’s
Believably so, although Marcus quickly makes the point it’s not always like that.
‘Oh, in a race it’s nothing like that at all; it can be quite brutal – elemental in fact. In the old days of gig racing if you dropped an oar you had to jump overboard as you were no longer of any use to the team.’
Lyme Regis Gig Club was set up in 2007 in response to growing public interest in a 15-foot Edwardian wooden rowing boat that a local crew including Marcus had crossed the Channel in. After some 50 people turned up to a public meeting to discuss the possibility of an in-shore gig rowing group he set about raising funds to get started.
‘Lyme Regis is a town that doesn’t have a leisure centre so gig rowing proved to be quite a good way of accessing various funding sources,’ explains Marcus, the club’s chairman. ‘It’s good for social cohesion because it involves a wide range of ages and provides a focus for them. There’s an economic benefit to the town because it is part of the Regatta and it also has excellent outcomes for health and wellbeing because it’s a great way of improving fitness. I started in order to keep fit, but then found I was running and going to the gym in order to become a better rower.
‘Now we’re one of the town’s clubs and I think very much a part of Lyme Regis. The town and district councils are very helpful and we’ve got a very supportive harbour master in Graham Foreshore and his team.’
The club’s first traditional clinker-built wooden Cornish pilot gig, Rebel, was paid for by local philanthropist George Eyre, which meant the money that had been raised to build it could be used to commission a second gig, Black Ven. The club now has a third, Tempest, as well as a fibreglass training gig called Revenge and a sea skiff, Gale Force.
Renowned traditional boat builder Gail McGarva built the skiff and the three wooden gigs in Lyme Regis. The first, Rebel, was made at the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy next door to the club’s clubhouse where she subsequently built Black Ven and Tempest.
All take their names from the town’s history. Rebel refers to King Charles I calling Lyme Regis ‘that most rebellious town’ during its Civil War siege (the clubhouse also sits on Monmouth Beach where the Duke of Monmouth landed his ill-fated invasion force in 1685); Black Ven is named in honour of the famous cliff between Lyme and Charmouth; while Tempest comes from the town’s association with Sir George Somers, the naval hero born in Lyme Regis who founded the colony of Bermuda in 1609 having been driven ashore by a terrible storm that is believed to have inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The skiff, Gale Force, is named after its builder.
‘The pun was just too good to pass up!’ laughs Marcus. ‘It’s important the boats are so much a part of Lyme Regis. Gail’s work is renowned the world over and together with a similar institution in Lowestoft the Boat Building Academy is considered the Oxford or Cambridge of boat building.
‘When Gail was working on Black Ven and Tempest in the clubhouse we were able to organise open days, people could come and see what was going on and there were opportunities to sponsor different parts of the boat so people’s names are on the boats. I mean, it’s no small thing to build a boat. They all start life as planks of wood and then emerge as these wonderful works of art and they’re made right here, in Lyme Regis.’
Cornish pilot gig racing can trace its roots back to the pilot boats that would compete to deliver pilots to guide bigger ships into Cornwall’s small harbours. Whoever got there first landed the fee so gigs had to be strong enough to cut through heavy seas, manoeuvrable and very fast – which also made them handy for smuggling.
While there’s no historic tradition of gig racing in Dorset, its seaside communities undoubtedly staged rowing races – fishing vessels, lifeboats and coastguard vessels would all have been rowed so races with crews from neighbouring towns and villages were inevitable. The same is true today and Cornish gig rowing clubs have spread along the south Devon coast and into Dorset. There are now clubs as far afield as Bristol and Portsmouth and a Cornish gig has recently been sold in Brighton.
‘In actual fact there are Dutch crews and a club in Bermuda, in St George’s, which is twinned with Lyme Regis, so it could be said to be international,’ says Marcus. ‘It has certainly made British Rowing sit up and take notice. The start line at the World Pilot Gig Championships in the Scilly Isles last year for the St Agnes to St Mary’s was over a mile long – that’s 128 gigs and something like 800 people.’
The re-emergence of gig racing started to take shape in the 1970s when celebrated boat builder Ralph Bird set out to restore some of the 19th-century Cornish gigs that were still in use, including the Treffry, built by William Peters (considered the grandfather of gig building) in 1838. By the mid-1980s it was decided to standardise new-build gigs and Ralph Bird laid down specifications based on the length, beam and elm planking of Treffry.
He went on to mentor Gail McGarva who built Rebel as a copy of Treffry and when the sport decided to digitise the plans it did so from the moulds created for Rebel. In essence every Cornish pilot gig built since 2007 is a descendant of Rebel, which is modelled on Treffry, whose origins go back at least 200 years to 1812 when William Peters built the gig Newquay, the oldest traditional
rowing boat in the world and still in use by Newquay Rowing Club.
It puts Lyme Regis Gig Club right at the heart of modern gig racing.
‘The Cornish are top dogs of course, but I think they quite like us in Lyme,’ says Marcus, ‘not least because one or two club members are capable of giving them a run for their money when it comes to drinking!’
The club also enjoys a hard-earned reputation as an ocean-going club after four of its members – Elliott Dale, Chris ‘Darby’ Walters, Tony Short and Brian Fletcher – crossed the Atlantic from Spain to the West Indies in 2012. Two years later Messrs Dale and Walters crossed from New York to the Scilly Isles becoming only the second pairs rowing team to do so on that route. It took them 60 days and set a new world record.
As inspirational as that undoubtedly is, the majority of club members have far less lofty ambitions. They range in age from eight to nearly eighty and are allocated rowing time in hour-long slots. All help with launching and putting the boats away, as well as maintenance and other tasks around the clubhouse. Families can learn to row together in the skiff, which makes the perfect nursery in which to nurture seamanship skills before the transition to the gigs.
‘It’s not necessarily about the strongest rower, it’s about rowing together as a team so each crew is only as good as the weakest member. There’s obviously a need for power and stamina, but technique is crucial. You could put a crew of six super fit athletes in a gig but they will lose every time to a well drilled team all rowing for each other, which is why we like to start rowers young in the skiff and then see them progress to the gigs.’
If anything there’s a tendency to play down the competitive side of the sport – the club welcomes all comers.
‘The original intention, certainly as far as I was concerned, was to set up a club for social rowers,’ explains Marcus, ‘but the competitive element gives us a structure to what we do. There are men’s and ladies’ A, B, C and D teams and youth teams so with three boats we can send teams to different meetings and competitions on the same weekends, some of which are more competitive than others. We also have the social rowers who row for fun and fitness, as well as intra-club meetings when we might race local clubs – Bridport has a very good club and Weymouth were very supportive to us.’
There are other clubs in Portland, Swanage and a new one in Poole, so there’s plenty of scope for healthy local rivalries to flourish and for all that it’s more about the participation there’s no small measure of pride when Marcus relates how the club returned from last year’s World Championships with its best ever results – top ten spots for the Men’s vets and supervets and the men’s A crew is now ranked 24th in the world.
‘We did pretty well,’ he smiles, ‘although I’m sure we’d love to do even better this year.’ ◗