The Scillies. World Pilot Gig Championships. WPGC. This is the biggest event in the gig racing calendar, now in its 28th year. It was my first. Actually, it was my second. Last year I was an on-shore spectator, in my slow recovery from the pneumothorax. For my second I had decided, on a whim, to go anyway for the ‘craic’, little expecting to race. Somewhere towards the end of February, with injuries appearing in our crews, Carolyn (I guess my rowing mentor, having built my confidence as a Cox) persuaded me that I would be fit enough in her own encouraging way… “You’ll be fine,” she said. I subbed in with Ladies C, but as the most experienced rower in the crew, I soon had Stroke’s seat. I wasn’t convinced that I was fit enough, until the end of the first race. Training had been hard, some sessions frustrating in that we never seemed to get it together, and I was worried that we had never completed a practice race. Could we last the distance?
Departing Flushing, I had the added anxiety of leaving Bessie (our 9 month-old puppy) in overnight accommodation – the first time I’d left her. I trusted Sarah (Sarah’s Doggie Daycare) implicitly, but I didn’t trust me not to have a little meltdown. As it was, I was choked when I drove away, but the drive to Land’s End Airport gave me the chance to focus on what lay ahead. I was nervous; excited. Having had a year of shut-down emotions, I knew that the flutter in my belly was a good thing. It mattered. It mattered to me that I would do the best I could and that I wouldn’t let the girls down.
I hadn’t reckoned on the amount of faff around the racing, although it shouldn’t have surprised me. There is always faff with any boating. The super high tides meant that we couldn’t launch and berth our gigs, Penarrow, Pinnacle, and Zawn on Friday evening. That added a task for Saturday morning. However, an hour passed searching for Pinnacle, the gig for Ladies C, We found her in the town dump, with Porthmellon beach supposedly her home for the weekend. That would have split us from the rest of the FMPGC gang, so that wasn’t going to happen. It meant for an early start on Saturday morning, as Lynn had us meet at 08:00 at Pinnacle to launch her and have a practice row, just to get a feel for the conditions and test out the stretchers. Try and settle the nerves. And for me, row with the G-oars for the first time.
The Long Race is the first race, with a 13:00 start time, but with the preparation for the race, it meant an 11:30 assembly. That’s the equivalent length of time to a normal training session. BEFORE A RACE. That was quite a daunting realisation in itself. We won one thing that day, FMPGC Ladies C were first off the beach! Yay! We did the drill of race preparation out to the startline, a routine that I absolutely love. It’s about getting the mindset for racing, getting the body warmed up, and the blood pumping. Of being race-ready. I was nervous, yes, but I owned my nerves. This mattered, and here I was, a year on from major surgery, fulfilling an ambition. I have a view in my mind of the line up on the long race, but I realise that is from watching from the shore, because in the gig, on the line, I was only really aware of the girls behind me, and our cox. Focus. Tap up one, back up. Hold water. Forward to row… and then GOOOOOOO. Our racing start, building the power to get the inertia out of the gig and send her flying. Pinnacle, the oldest gig in our club purchased from Swanage, and favourite to many members. The conditions were lively, with a strong cross-tide and wind, and we were lucky in the lane-draw that we had. We started well, and settled. We were playing tag with Vault, a purple gig, off the line, and then throughout the race. They edged it when our no. 5 caught a crab, and then we pulled back. They were on the bow side of us, to port, and they were the only other gig I took notice of. Ladies C were racing well, in time, Pinnacle felt like she was moving well, the sound of the pins clunking in unison down the gig, like a heart-beat. I knew in the race that this was the best we’d rowed – not the usual drag on stroke as the crew’s timing falters. Pinnacle was light and responsive. This was fun. A feeling that I wasn’t expecting to have in our first race. St Mary’s sheltered us from the worst of the cross-tide and wind as we raced towards the finish. At Lynn’s marker, she asked us if we were up for the race-finish tactics. We were. The last 60 strokes were epic, as we hardened, upped the rate, hardened, and then powered through the finish line, Vault’s hull disappearing from sight. It was only then I looked up, to see an armada of gigs behind us. Not only had we beaten Vault, but we weren’t anywhere near last. As we paddled on, I was close to tears, words choking in my throat. Ladies B were screaming at us, “where did that come from?”. We were an incredible 90 seconds behind them. We were the best we had been, and we had saved it for this day. I was elated, and so, so proud. The girls later said that they just followed me; calm, clear me. Me rowing my best had helped them all. Someone said, Sarah perhaps, that the race isn’t as hard as anything that happened in training. I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being ‘kind’, but adrenaline must be the magic ingredient. It didn’t feel as hard, for sure. The data doesn’t lie, and the stats from my Garmin showed me that I had poured my heart and soul into that race. I could not have given any more. Sarah was being straight.
Every Scillies is known for different themes, but I hadn’t appreciated how different the races would be within the regatta. I should know that, being a sailor, but the contrast between the first and second races were epic. The wind had swung around, a bit, and freshened, as forecast. As we were rowing out to the start, Lynn had said that she wasn’t sure that we had it in us to cope with the forecast conditions for that afternoon, but our performance in the morning had given her confidence – and that in us. The second race, however, was a real test for us. The second race runs from Nut Rock, off Tresco, to St Mary’s harbour, with a lively sea running, and a significant headwind. By significant, I mean a Force6, fully in Beaufort’s strong wind category, running at 26kts. The row out to the start was a test of endurance in itself. We could have flown down, but the preparation is all about pace, and rest. Each time we had an easy, we were rolled side-on to the running sea, rocking us sideways. Our No.3 felt queasy, our No.4’s fear of the sea raised its head, so we kept moving. Flying downwind, and then turning to beat our oars and make progress against the headwind. Lynn marking it so that she knew we could row against the conditions. We could. We were going to race. Unfortunately a couple of gigs on the start line couldn’t. In the run of the heats, the slowest go first, and the ladies in Group K were finding it too much, so two, we think, were towed off. This meant that the safety boats were being used to rescue, with no cover for the races. The start of the races were probably delayed by 30 minutes, maybe more. So we were constantly moving, 130-ish crews, trying to stay out of each other’s way. Lining up was horrendous, with unsympathetic officers on the start-line. Doubtlessly stressed, and fed-up of being on the washing machine of the start. They had six more heats to do after ours.
This race was gruelling. A slog into the wind, but our No.3 and No.4 were in trouble. Bex, in three, screamed in pain during the race. She’d put her hip out, and therefore couldn’t pull any weight. The sea conditions had worked their way into our No.4, sapping her of her confidence and therefore her technique. She later said that she was terrified of losing her oar, of it being swallowed by the sea. Once fear sets in, it is hard to rationalise it away. We didn’t really race that race, just marking technique, but we held our group, coming in 10th. We had done enough, but we were all deflated, with one in pain, and one struggling to manage her anxieties.
The weather was forecast to close in on the Saturday night, with rain and strong winds forecast. With the high spring tides, we weren’t sure whether we would need to get Pinnacle back on her trailer, but thankfully, the shared consensus was that the gigs could be left on the beach. I’m not sure I would have had the strength to heave and haul at boat moving. A hot bath and a decent meal was all that I was after. Four of us had supper that night, at the Star Castle, all of us swaying at the table. Faces a-glow from the sun and wind. I can’t tell you what we ate, as I had a slight trance-like feeling. Partly from a body still trying to adjust to a dinner table, but also dazed from the day. Bruised from the second race, and still giddy from the first. Sleep didn’t come easily, and I could hear the rain beating on the window, the wind whistling in the trees. I was a couple of hundred metres from the campsite, feeling grateful that camping wasn’t part of my Scillies experience.
I woke stiff, still slightly numb, like this was happening to someone else, not me. I’m not sure why that was, and I had to fight my way through my own fog, back into ‘owning’ my experience. I stood on the decking, overlooking St Mary’s Sound, talking myself back into my flip-flops. The storm had cleared through, and it was a bright morning. The winds had abated, but were forecast to build again in the afternoon. We had two more races to go.
To be honest, a month on, I can’t really separate these two in my mind. The winds were at odds to the tide, so the sea was choppy, familiar conditions to any seasoned Scillies racer. Familiar enough to us training in The Carrick Roads. There was nothing we couldn’t handle. Only our performance dwindled. We lacked stamina, hardly surprising after our first full race-pace race being the previous day. Bex, our No.3 had been taped up, and had drugged herself up, and was heroic. “I won’t let you down,” she said. Our No.4, after a soggy night in a tent, unrested, continued to battle with her fear, each lick of a wave eroding more and more of her confidence. Our collective hearts went out to her as she struggled. Another not to let us down. I am so proud of her for staying with her crew. Our Cox realised that we had reached our combined limits, with her job to get us to the start and then through to the finish line. For each of the two races, I pulled and pulled, trying to give the girls the same clear signals, roaring a couple of times, but Pinnacle wasn’t moving well, the clunk of the oars on the pins was more rapid gunfire than booming heart-beat. It was dispiriting for all of us when we cleared the line, last in both heats.
The wait between races felt longer than the previous day, as we wandered about, seeking shelter from the chill wind and willing the clouds to part so that we could have ‘lizard time’ and get some warmth into our stiffening muscles. We talked about the race, and what we needed to do to try and get the rhythm back into our rowing. We came up with ‘reach for the gin,’ to extend the reach of the catch, but we needed a longer word to pace the return. Sip – too short. Slug – still too short. Savour – perfect. Reach for the gin, and saaaaaavvvvoouuurrr. Unfortunately it didn’t work, the girls were definitely slugging. It was later that week that our Cox said she’d run out of things to say to motivate us. She couldn’t work out how to get our now frozen No.4 mentally back in the gig. The tactics for the last race. Different – we were just rowing home from a picnic, and there just happened to be other boats around us. We started well, so Ladies B told us, and in the warm conditions that now blessed us, we couldn’t get it together. We crossed the line shattered, physically and emotionally. I would have said that it wasn’t much of a party for us, rafted up, waiting for the Ladies finalists to come through. I felt disappointed inside, not because we had more to give, because I genuinely believe that we gave our all, and our best. We peaked too soon, and the giddy high of the first, long race was something that I wanted to feel right at the end. The camera doesn’t lie, and when I look at the photo of us rafted up, those are beaming smiles, to a person, and not the faces of a dejected crew. We had exceeded our expectations. We had smashed it in one race, and finished 96th overall. We broke 100, when I didn’t expect to do anything other than finish in the last heat. We deserved to drink deeply on the Prosecco in the gig, and enjoy the celebrations together. Each of us, I know, had done the others proud.
Our race had finished somewhere around 14:00, we were certainly rafted up and drinking Prosecco shortly after. After the carnage of 146 bevvied up crews heading to the beach, we had the task of getting Pinnacle and Penarrow back onto their trailers. Pinnacle had to go back to the dump. Our work wasn’t done, and it’s surprising how quickly the bubbles dissipate, and you sober up. It was 5 o’clock when we got back to the Hotel, and we hadn’t strayed anywhere to get another drink! Time enough for that.
The legendary Sunday night revelry was immense, and as crazy as folk had described. There is a ‘what happens on Scilly, stays on Scilly’, but nothing I saw was remotely worthy of that as a condition of taking part. Just high-spirited, glorying in the achievement and kind of cohesion of the event. Cohesion in crews, in our club with friendships formed during the long winter training. We drank, danced on the tables, and were a ragged accompaniment to the Cadgwith crew who lead the shanty singing into the early hours of Monday morning. I passed up on shots, jagerbombers, and dancing in The Mermaid. I was beginning to ache through to my bones, and all I wanted was to fall into the arms of sleep, knowing that I would be relatively clear-headed on waking.
Monday was as an important day as the rest of the weekend. We took ‘Tim’s tours’ to Old Town, via the spectacle of the coastal path, ending up in the Old Town Inn for lunch. Most left on the Scillonian at 17:00, running a little late because of the high seas. The ebbing sound of shanties left with them, as the town settled down to its more customary pace, most of the gig-rowers displaced back to the mainland during the day. I had one more night, and one restorative lazy morning, where I went to see for myself a sorry casualty of the weekend’s weather. It would take the next spring-tide to recover her.
Finally, I checked out of Scilly, a gig-sized hole in my heart, but not before securing the same room-with-a-view for 2018. Never say never…