We're ready to show our skills in year's biggest events
IT'S a sight you would normally expect to see off the Cornish coast – a traditional West Country pilot gig crew, cutting a swathe through the choppy waters – but today, far from the open sea, the crew is gliding across the still waters of the Floating Harbour.
The Bristol Pilot Gig Boat Club has become a familiar slice of Cornish life on the Floating Harbour over the last five years – the most northern Cornish-style pilot gig club in the country.
But the harbour community will have noticed the club's members spending more time than usual getting into their rowing stride over the past few weeks.
The rowers of the Bristol Pilot Gig Boat Club have a few very exciting weeks ahead of them – they have been chosen both as one of the city's representatives at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames, and the club's junior crews have been chosen to take part in the special flotilla that will form a guard of honour for the Olympic torch as it processes across the Floating Harbour this evening.
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"It's very exciting," says club co- ordinator Jerry Boaden. "It's going to be two very special days for our members."
The 52-year-old retired IT consultant from Frampton Cotterell, will be part of the adult crew formed from among the club's 80 members to take part in the jubilee pageant.
"We'll be rowing for 20 miles on the Thames alongside 1,000 other boats of every conceivable shape and size," Jerry says.
"I applied for the club to be a part of the event a couple of years ago. It's been so long in the pipeline that I'd actually almost forgotten about it when I had the letter through inviting us to take the boat up there for the event."
Jerry was one of the founding members of the club, which was formed five years ago.
"Pilot gig boat racing is very much a Cornish tradition, and many of our 80 members in Bristol are ex-pat Cornishmen and Devonians who are now living in the city," he explains.
"As a hobby, gig boat clubs have steadily crept up through the South West, though Bristol is still the furthest north the sport has reached.
"Historically the gigs were there to take the pilot out to meet a ship coming into harbour. Rival pilots would compete to get to each ship – hence the racing tradition. Just as they did in those days, we still row with crews of six and a cox, and we still have an empty seat in the boat for the pilot.
"But these days being part of a gig boat club is all about the social side of it and the exercise – it's hard work, especially when you get out to sea.
"Of course in Bristol we have it easy – we meet each Sunday and row on the Floating Harbour. It's relatively leisurely compared with the sea-going racing that takes place in Cornwall.
"We've just been out to the Isles of Scilly to watch the national gig boat racing championships, and it was incredible to see just how powerful some of these more experienced crews are.
"We're still all relatively new to the sport in Bristol, but we're slowly getting to grips with it."
A year ago the group also set up a separate junior pilot gig boat crew. This evening they will also be given the opportunity to take part in a spectacular national celebration, when they accompany the Olympic Torch procession as the flame is taken across the Floating Harbour with plenty of pomp and ceremony.
Fellow club member Carl Bowen set up the junior team a year ago.
"We were keen to find a way of encouraging younger people into the sport.
"One of our pilot gig boats is called Young Bristol, and it was becoming a bit of a joke among the harbour community who were growing used to seeing it only being used by a bunch of balding old men.
"I was unemployed, so had a bit of time on my hands, had a background in youth work, and was able to commit myself to setting up a youth crew.
"Initially we went to St Mary Redcliffe School, because it was the Floating Harbour's closest school, and recruited as many young people as we could."
The club's recruitment drive was so successful, it is now able to run two youth crews – one male and one female crew, with members ranging from 14 to 16 years old. Both crews will take part in the Olympic flotilla.
"It's a wonderful sport for young people to get involved with – it's great for their core strength. It's hard work, because these are traditional fixed-seats boats with big, heavy wooden oars. But it certainly beats rowing on a machine in a gym.
"It also hones their teamwork skills – this is very much a team sport, and crews have to work together if they're going to get anywhere."
Carl says both young crews are excited to be taking part in the Olympic Torch event.
"It's going to be spectacular," he says. "The torch bearer at that point, Paralympian swimmer Blaire Hannan, will be in a boat crossing the Floating Harbour from Redcliffe Wharf to the Amphitheatre, and there will be dozens of small boats accompanying her in the special flotilla – including numerous boats from the city's various youth sailing clubs. We will not be the only ones enjoying the experience."
The youth team is also currently in training for its first real test of pilot gig racing.
"The crews will be taking part in their first real pilot gig regatta at Portland on May 27," Carl says. "That will be the first time they will have come up against other crews with a race at sea. So that's going to be a valuable experience for them."