This Cornish Pilot Gig, a 32 ft, six-man rowing gig, has been commissioned by the US Navy to compliment the USS Constitution and provide a craft for training and exercise for the crew.
The 2015 GLBBS school year brought a second unique, historical, and special project to GLBBS students, the building of a 32-foot Cornish Pilot Gig to complement America’s Ship of State, the USS Constitution, currently in dry dock undergoing an extensive restoration at the historic Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston Harbor, Boston Massachusetts. ‘Old Ironsides’, as the USS Constitution is often called, is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.
This six-man rowing gig has a long and interesting history. Developed in the early 1800’s on the coast of Cornwall England, the boats were originally used to ferry pilots to the incoming sailing ships in order to guide them to safe harbor. The lightly built lapstrake gigs needed to be seaworthy and fast; six strong rowers and a coxswain were employed to race the boat out in any weather, and the nature of the Pilot business soon turned into a competition to be the first crew there and get the pilot aboard. The gigs were also used for rescue and salvage operations, and, due to their speed and seaworthiness, were used by smugglers, crossing the 170 miles of open and dangerous waters between the English south coast and Brittany.
To keep in condition, the crews of the many gigs waiting for the chance to row to a ship started rowing against each other in organized competitions. Soon these competitions became popular spectator events with substantial cash prizes. There was even an all-female rowing crew that travelled to the many competitions, taking home considerable winnings! The gig evolved to its present form sometime in the mid 1800’s and, though the means of delivering the pilot to the ships changed, the gigs remained popular and continued to race in competitions put on by the coastal towns of Cornwall and throughout Great Britain.
The gig that GLBBS is building for the USS Constitution is based on the Cornish Pilot Gig Treffry, built at Saint Mawes on the Cornish coast in 1842. The lines of the original boat were reproduced and a history of the pilot gigs and their construction well documented in John Gardener’s book, Building Classic Small Craft. This same boat was recently finished for the Come Boating! organization of Belfast Maine, and they supplied us with a new table of offsets from the Selkie, a gig built by Belfast, Maine boat builder Rick Fitzsimmons, to complement the information in the Gardener book.
The Treffry gig is 32-ft. long with a beam of four feet, eight inches. The six rowers sit opposite of their oarlocks, each man with a twelve-foot sweep. The original construction employed mostly local wood; narrow leaf elm was used for the backbone, planking and frames. A combination of elm and oak was used for the many knees and rails that finish out the boat. Traditional fastenings of clench nails at the plank laps and rivets for the frames were used.
For our gig we chose Iroko, a strong and rot resistant African hardwood, for the backbone; Port Orford cedar planking and white oak for the bent frames. Various woods will be used for the thwarts, knees and rails. The color scheme will be Navy Blue.
Besides the usual hand skills learned through lapstrake boat building the other significant skills and experiences include: working together on a larger craft, working on a significant and historic project and learning about the maritime/naval history of our country.
August Glory was trailered, by GLBBS Student Services Administrator, Scott Johnson, to the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, CT to be displayed at the annual WoodenBoat Show and then trailered up to the the Charlestown Navel yard in Boston, MA for delivery to the US Navy at the USS Constitution dock. Scott shares his experience:
Preparing to trailer a student-built 32 foot Pilot Gig to Mystic, Connecticut was a daunting challenge. Instructors Andy James and Pat Mahon, along with students, gently placed the vessel on a customized trailer donated by local residents for the journey. The name “August Glory” had been boldly painted on the bow of the boat. Students had worked diligently for several months preparing their boat for public display. The boat was immaculate, and I was determined to make the 1100 mile journey without incident. Too many people had worked too hard constructing “August Glory”, and we were determined to deliver the vessel in pristine condition.
After photographing “August Glory” one last time in her “birthplace” in Cedarvillle, it was time to head for Mystic. The trip took three days, and we received an inordinate amount of attention from fellow travelers. Stopping for fuel often attracted a small crowd, and plenty of photographs were taken of the boat by curious onlookers. It was an honor to represent the Great Lakes Boat Building School, showcasing the fine work done by our students.
Arriving in Mystic was a relief after three bumpy days of driving. Executive Director Pat Mahon was waiting at the village green, where we had secured the ideal spot to display “August Glory”. GLBBS staff, students, alumni, volunteers, family and friends did an excellent job manning the booth, handing out brochures and answering questions about our boats and school. The weather cooperated, and the show was a smashing success. Spending time with wooden boat enthusiasts was informative, and our students were able to network with employers and build new relationships. We will certainly be returning to Mystic next year.
Alumni, current students and staff concluded the show with a hearty lobster feast. It was an appropriate way to celebrate the accomplishments of our students, and it was a pleasure to relax and enjoy the good company. In 36 hours, we would turn over “August Glory” to the United States Navy in Boston.
Driving through the streets of Boston with a 32 foot vessel behind the school vehicle was uneventful. While many gawked, we pulled into the Boston Navy Yard and cleared security. The expressions of the sailors revealed their satisfaction with “August Glory”. We would have a formal ceremony the next morning, but it was clear the boat was popular with the crew. I felt relieved to have completed the journey.
On June 30th, Commander Sean Kearns of the USS Constitution formally took delivery of “August Glory”. A toast was made, and the crew raised their glasses to the newest member of the Navy fleet. Shortly afterward, the crew eagerly launched the boat and climbed aboard. A competent coxswain directed her crew, and soon “August Glory” was effortlessly gliding through the water with grace and style. The students who built her watched proudly, knowing that they had built a seaworthy vessel which will be used by the Navy for many years. The Navy crew was very pleased with her performance, and smiled broadly as they admired the craftsmanship and skill of our students.
Shortly afterwards, Commander Kearns arranged a tour of the USS Constitution, which is currently being renovated at Boston Navy Yard. Navy crew members took GLBBS students, staff and family on a comprehensive tour of the historic vessel. We were fortunate to have access to most areas of the vessel, and were escorted to the Captain’s quarters. Additionally, we were able to view the massive rudder up close, taking photographs throughout. A large piece of oak, removed from the USS Constitution, was presented to Pat Mahon, who oversaw the construction of “August Glory”. Nearly 500 years old, this oak will be prominently displayed in the Great Lakes Boat Building School library.
It was an honor and privilege to deliver the boat to Boston. A team of dedicated students created a beautiful example of traditional wooden boat building. The Great Lakes Boat Building School students can be justly proud of their boat. “August Glory” reflects the craftsmanship and skill of GLBBS students, and being able to take part in the delivery was something I will always treasure.