With a new gig, newly qualified coaches and a boatload of confidence, Thames Barbarians Pilot Gig Club in Gravesend are gaining traction with an alternative, accessible and beginner-friendly form of rowing, thanks to a grant from Active Thames
Within the Isle of Scilly’s St Mary’s harbour, Cornish gigs raft up together as they cheer on the finalists of the Gig Racing Championships; their wooden oars pointing straight up in the blue sky. It’s May bank holiday, and the six-oared wooden rowing boats are a vivid display of colour against the blue sea. The atmosphere is electric; attracting crowds of all ages and crews from across England, the Netherlands, Ireland and France. Within the mass of crews huddled together, a rather new club, Thames Barbarians Pilot Gig Club, enthusiastically cheers on the finalists. For club founders Jon Averns and Rachel Hedley, it was a triumph for the club which was founded only three years earlier.
“It was a spectacular sight,” Jon, club secretary, says. “It really galvanised our ambition and brought us together as a club. I was so impressed by the way we worked together, both on and off the water. With crews cheering each other on, and the camaraderie of campsite cooking.” The competition was fierce, particularly for our older members – in gig rowing, you become a veteran aged 40. “Maybe some of us are a little bit more mature in age than the crews we were up against in some of the races,” Jon laughs, “but it was an inspiring experience.”
Participating in this triumphant scene was made possible by the hard work of the club’s founders, especially through the height of Covid-19. An Active Thames grant of £2,500 has supported club development with cox training, coaching masterclasses and taster day sessions for the South East London and Kent community. The new initiative led by Port of London Authority aims to make watersports more inclusive, diverse and accessible, while promoting the benefits of using the river recreationally for mental and physical health.
Gig rowing in the South West has been a competitive sport since the 1980s and for many of the well-established crews, generations have been competing for the same club. “It’s in their blood, so-to-speak,” says Rachel, club chair “At the Scillies we learned not only how physical racing is, but how much there was to it: the technique, endurance, tactics and strength. It’s short, sharp racing and for people who have never done it before, it can be stressful. It’s all about being there, launching the boat, getting the crew out on time, cheering, running back to the boat: it’s a full-on intense activity! But the gig community is really friendly and helpful, and as a newbie club we were really looked after.”
Formed in 2019 and based in Gravesend, Thames Barbarians Pilot Gig Club complements other forms of rowing in the area, including skiffs and fine-boat. The club aims to engage the currently underserved community of South East London and Kent with a type of accessible and beginner-friendly rowing.
In 2021, the club were able to grow with the loan of a training gig from the Cornish Pilot Gig Association and they plan to buy one soon. Earlier this year, through crowdfunding, which Port of London Authority helped promote, they raised the money for their first wooden racing gig.
“Gravesend has some long established rowing clubs, but like any sport there are different ways to participate,” Rachel explains. “Gigs offer a stable platform, and participants can go from zero to hero quite quickly. Cornish pilot gigs are also designed for rowing at sea, so can withstand the elements well. A gig can cope with waves and choppy water better than smaller rowing boats, so we can safely row in all sorts of conditions throughout the year.”
The club now has around 30 members but is keen to grow. “Everyone is welcome to come and have a go,” says Jon. “We’re open to all ages, from 18-88 and all levels of experience.”
From cox training to technique training, an investment in coaching development has allowed the club to grow. “The training has helped us improve our technique as Cornish Pilot Gig rowers and the quality of coaching has been lifted,” Jon says. As the only club on the Thames to launch just before the first Covid-19 lockdown, restrictions delayed delivery of training sessions and becoming affiliated to the Cornish Gig Pilot Association. Now the club is able to offers regular sessions at weekends and weekday evenings for its members. Taster sessions for newcomers give a chance to try out the sport, with the next taster day being on 5 November. This year the club has also developed a Learn to Row four-part course which covers safety, boat-knowledge, techniques and theory.
Safety is paramount to Thames Barbarians but Rachel says the advantage of having a stable boat means even people who have never been on the water before find it easy to get started. “We always consider the safety elements and will adapt our practices to suit individual needs and disabilities as necessary.”
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