Brewery hosts historic Boat Builders’ conference

Photo: Boat builders at the meeting included: Win Cnoops, Dave Currah, Louis Hunkin, Maurice Hunkin, Peter Martin, Andrew Nancarrow, Brian Nobbs, Peter Williams

St Austell Brewery has played host to an historic first meeting of the builders of Cornish pilot gig boats, presided over by the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, with the aim of creating a shared vision with which to take the sport to the next level.

As one of the fastest growing leisure pursuits in the country, gig rowing looks set to explode out of its Westcountry home in the near future and become established not only across large parts of the English coastline, but also in many mainland European locations including Holland, France, Ireland and Bermuda.

But this incredible proliferation of the sport will not be plain sailing, as CPGA Trustee Shane Sullivan, Chair of the meeting, explained, “We have received so many requests from organisations and individuals who want to set up their own clubs it really is phenomenal. However, the growing success of the sport brings its own problems and this meeting, apart from being a historic first, had the very serious aim of giving those who are essential to the future of the sport, the gig builders themselves, the chance to help us understand the very real problems they are experiencing as demand for gig boats increases.”

Since the revival of gig rowing back in the late 1980s, the sport has taken a firm hold across the entire South West of the country, bringing in excess of £4 million to the local economy through increased tourism and the creation of the infrastructure and running of the sport, with a reported £3million created through the Isles of Scilly World Championships alone last year. Included in the overall figure are the close to 200 new wooden gigs that have been hand built by local craftsmen using traditional materials and methods across Cornwall and further afield in the intervening years.

In an attempt to preserve the heritage of the Cornish pilot gig boats, a decision was taken as early as 1986 by legendary builder Ralph Bird and his contemporaries to base all future gig builds on the design of one of the last remaining original boats – the Treffry – built by William Peters of St Mawes in 1838.

While understanding and supporting the idea of maintaining the heritage of the boats, contemporary builder, Fowey-based Louis Hunkin, with his mark on at least 17 gigs built alongside his father Maurice, was quick to voice some of the concerns of the builders who attended the meeting at the St Austell Brewery Visitor Centre, commenting, “As it stands, the rules state that the stems of the boat have to be made using a single piece of grown oak and as they become more difficult to obtain we have to travel great distances to buy them and the prices never come down. The same result could be achieved using smaller pieces of oak and laminating them, which would stabilise prices for customers as well as possibly making the boat keep its shape longer. On top of that, we have to make the thwarts (seats) out of elm, which is also getting more difficult to obtain in the correct lengths and quality. We used to make the seats out of mahogany, saving the good elm for the planking but this was stopped.”

Working together with the Tribute-sponsored CPGA, it is hoped that a compromise can be achieved that will allow the heritage of the boats to be preserved while also taking a more pragmatic approach to the methods and materials used to enable builders to keep up with demand without affecting the performance or lines of the boats.

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