In 1988, while racing in the Fete du Bateaux Boise (Festival of Wooden Boats) in Douarnenez, France museum crews encountered the Cornish Pilot Gig. Thirty two feet long with a plumb stem and a wineglass transom carrying six single banked rowers (one rower to each thwart) and driven by a coxswain, it was love at first stroke. Quickly three rowing clubs began to interpret the design with uniquely American spin. In 1989 and 90 the Siren Song in Gloucester, the Kittery from southern Maine and the Pilot from Hull were launched and began to traverse their local waters. The pilot gig is a time tested deep water rowing vessel that because of size and ease of maintenance quickly became the signature program boat for the burgeoning open water rowing community in New England.
Twenty five years later there are 35 pilot gigs extant and a couple more hitting the water each year. The majority of the gigs are kid-built by their consumer club with a few being turned out by professional boatbuilders. Though the core dimensional tenets are strictly adhered to, each builder puts their own spin on the interpretation. There are traditional cedar on oak frames, there are plywood planked models, there are cold molded and hard chined variations but each one nevertheless handles the sea in finest Cornish tradition.
Port Of Boston:
Port, for short, is the second pilot gig built by the museum during the eight week summer job training program in Charlestown Navy Yard in 1993. Visiting boat builder Bob (the hard liquor drinkin’ cigarette smokin’ BUDDHIST!!) from Texas A&M in Galveston, Texas supervised a dozen DYS kids in turning out the lightest and arguably the fastest of the museum’s gigs. It is lightly built with 3/8″ marine plywood on plywood frames with recycled carbon graphite oars and racing shell oarlocks. The dark green hull has lived in the City for 20 years.
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Lion for short is the second pilot gig to live permanently in the inner Harbor. It was built in 2005 by the crews at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes Vt and purchased into the museum fleet in 2000. Dramatically heavier scantlings differentiate it from other museum gigs with steam bent oak frames over cedar planking and the characteristic Vermont gypsy color scheme of red and yellow. It was named for an iconic vermont mountain that looms over Lake Champlain.
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In 1993, open space advocates in Manhattan realized the “our greenspace is in fact bluespace”, that is there was infinitely more water available to new Yorkers than parks and they came to the museum to explore how to access their home waters. After a bit of head scratching they drew upon the expertise of marine architect Mike McEvoy to create an interpretation of the small agile gig that plied the waters of New York Harbor in colonial days. Named for the Whitehall section of New York’s waterfront, it was one of the vessel types that helped George Washington’s beleaguered troops to escape sure defeat from British forces at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights under the cover of a foggy night in 1776.
Smaller and more nimble than the Cornish gigs, it’s 25′ length and four rowers is ideal for smaller rowing programs and crowded urban waters. Originally fabricated in a storefront boatshop in NY’s Port Authority, it proved to be a simple and easy boat to build with kids and adult volunteers. In short order about 35 Whitehall gigs appeared first in greater New York and then more widely throughout New England as other clubs realized both their integrity and the flexibility they offer programatically. The BRC relies upon it’s fours to be able to expand or contract according to the number of rowers who show up each day. The BRC currently has three whitewalls, one built in 1994 in Charlestown Navy Yard the two purchased in 2007 and 2008 from Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. They are ideal to use in Fort Point Channel roaring in and around the bridges on days when the wind howls outside.
Herring for short, is half of a “somewhat” matched pair of Whitehall gigs built in 8 weeks by a summer job training crew in 1994. Led by builders Les Chase, Frank Townsend and Lory Newmyer, all first time boatbuilders, the Mighty Herring and the Sacred Cod hit the water after being christened by Mike Beck, the skipper of the USS Constitution. The “somewhat” designation refers to a minor math mistake that occurred while the boats were built upside down on the pier in the Navy Yard, allowing the herring to have a dramatic sweep to it’s sheer. The bright yellow Herring built of marine plywood has been one of the mainstays of the BRC since it’s inception, poking in and out of the innumerable nooks and crannies of the inner harbor with impunity. The decision was made to name our fours after indigenous fish species of Boston Harbor. Having covered the two most obvious choices, future fours might be the the Wily Striper or the Bountiful Blue, or perhaps the Tenacious Tautog or the Smiling Smelt or even the Barking Crab.
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Firefly & Bowfin:
These two superb interpretations of the whitehall gig were built by youngsters in the shops of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Stoutly constructed with pine planking on steambent oak frames, these two boats are well founded sea boats able to safely transit the worst conditions. Part of the development of the whole range of small boat skills is the use of auxiliary sail rigs in rowing boats. Predicated on the opportunity to carry small, knockdown sails, easily stored on the thwarts without interfering with the rowers, they can be set up in a trice and provide surprising turns of speed down wind. All old time mariners carried these rigs to give themselves an easy, speedy option when the wind cooperated. They are only for downwind use but are lots of fun when set. The Bowfin has a dandy rig and all the other boats in the fleet are gradually being fitted for sails. The riotous color schemes of Firefly and Bowfin, named for the insect and an indigenous fresh water fish, identify them as Vermont-built boats where the builders choose the color.
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