On the water

Pilot gig rowing is a popular sport

Pilot gig rowing is a popular sport - Credit: Archant

Olympic pentathlete Heather Fell investigates the sport of rowing

My first introduction to rowing or should I say rowers was in the Olympic Village, Beijing. The day I flew into China with the modern pentathlon team happened to coincide with the rowers returning from their venue outside of the Olympic park; they were ready to celebrate and enjoy this unique environment whilst we were nervously stepping into this enormous sporting arena for the first time.

As a result of Beijing I developed some strong friendships with several of the rowing team and got an insight into this incredibly tough sport.

Other than my slim knowledge of Olympic rowing, the closest I have actually come to experiencing the sport is a few gym sessions on an indoor rowing machine and one trial in an offshore rowing boat. I have always been slightly daunted by the rowing scene as with a huge variety of disciplines it could seem a sport better left to the professionals. I am pleased to say that there are many who do not have these misconceptions as evidenced by the 11 clubs based on the South Devon coast.

Allow me to summarise: there are two significant divisions which are divided by the type of seat, whether it is fixed or sliding. The sliding seats include fine boats such as those seen at the Olympics and also the offshore variety; then there are fixed seat boats such as Pilot Gigs.

Since Great Britain’s success at London 2012, especially with the Westcountry’s Helen Glover winning our first gold at Dorney Lake, rowing has had an influx of participants.

The British Rowing Association oversee this development and help to coordinate between the various clubs including initiating learn to row programmes. Just last month there were five hundred school children from Plymouth taking part in an indoor rowing competition and every secondary school has access to this programme.

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The most popular discipline amongst adults in the Westcountry is pilot gig boat rowing. I have to confess it originated from our neighbours in 1790 when pilots were needed to guide the big ships into Cornish Harbours.

As each ship only needed one pilot it became a race to deliver your pilot first and therefore get paid. The type of boat and its structure of six crew and a cox has not changed - the newly built boats still have to all fit the exact template before being signed off.

This type of rowing has remained dominant in the Westcountry but it is a growing sport with the world championships hosting nearly one hundred and forty teams including countries such as Holland and Ireland.

The South Hams offer a selection of gig rowing clubs and one of these is the Turnchapel-based Cattewater club. I spoke to Chairman David Wynn who explained the sport as being competitive yet social.

His club owns Pilgrim and Drake, whilst waiting for Catalina to be built. These boats are made from elm costing £22,000 and once ready for the water the work does not stop there as maintenance of these unique wooden crafts is ongoing. To meet the demand from club members they have invested in two plastic boats for training, although a rota is still required in order to give everyone the opportunity to row whether for training or socially.

With the nature of the sport being a healthy combination of a strong physical workout alongside a fun social scene it does seem to attract members from all walks of life. David links this to people searching for a physical release from the stresses of everyday work. This year they have organised training sessions throughout the winter, with selection for the three men’s and three women’s teams being competitive they are hoping for some strong results in this upcoming regatta season.

He told me it takes about four years to perfect the technique and a successful gig rower needs to have equally strong fitness, technique and timing. If all of this sounds too much commitment then there are recreational rowing opportunities and a new taster session initiative to encourage first timers to come and try out this unique sport.

Although the boats are expensive this is a sport that is highly accessible to all. I have been assured you need only bring some warm layers, a pair of old trainers and a ‘have a go’ attitude to be guaranteed some fun on the Devon coast.