BELFAST, Maine — The sextet rhythmically rowed the 32-foot-long gig, speeding lightly over the surface of Belfast Bay. It’s a common sight in Belfast, where the crew trains for upcoming races, but it’s still one that causes passers-by to stop and watch awhile.
They might not realize, but they’re watching a top racing crew that has been making a name for itself around New England.
“It took us six years of continuous competition before we broke through,” coxswain Malcom Gater, 72, of Belfast said this week. “Now, touch wood, we’re winning everything. It’s hard work and training. Now, we’re the team to beat in northeast America.”
Most recently, the gig rowing crew brought home to Belfast a victory and a course record from the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile open-water race around Cape Ann, Mass. The crew of four men and two women from the greater Waldo County area made it around the cape on July 14 in just over three hours in their Cornish pilot gig. The nearest competition in their pilot gig class was 46 minutes behind them.
“It’s challenging conditions,” rower John Dillenbeck said of the race. “There’s a lot of exposed sea, so depending on the wind and tide and waves, you’re usually getting hit by something.”
The 47-year-old builder from China said that the crew had trained hard for the Blackburn Challenge, logging two-and-a-half-hour rows around Belfast Harbor and Penobscot Bay.
“Once you had the physical part down, it’s all mental,” he said. “You had to decide you just wanted to pull on the oar one more time. We had a whole team of people who really wanted to do that.”
Cornish pilot gigs have a long history. They were developed in the early 1800s in the Scilly Isles, 40 miles off the coast of Cornwall in England. The boats were designed to be fast and seaworthy, so they could transport local pilots to incoming sailing vessels. The first pilot gig to reach the ship would win the profitable job of guiding it safely through the shoals, so there was a built-in incentive for the oarsmen to be extra speedy, according to the website for Come Boating!.
Though gig rowing is a very popular sport in the United Kingdom, according to Dillenbeck, it really hasn’t made such a splash on the west side of the Atlantic as of yet.
“It is pretty unusual,” he said. “The English rowers are incredible. They do this from the time they can walk. They train like any professional athlete would for an event.”
Gater, who is British by birth, said that he formerly had worked as a harbormaster in Newquay in Cornwall and had rowed and coxed on occasion. Shortly after he moved to Belfast in 2004, he was stunned to see a notice posted looking for people to row a Cornish gig, and discovered Come Boating! that way.
“It’s a community rowing association, with an emphasis on community,” he said. “But we have a racing section. It’s hard work, rowing. Once you start racing, it’s stamina and technique.”
But despite the hard physical work associated with this kind of rowing, it can be quite meditative, some rowers said.
“You just lose yourself in the rowing,” said Monica Piccinini, 46, of Belfast.
Something else she appreciates is the community of rowers she has found since starting with Come Boating! four summers ago.
“I love the camaraderie among rowers,” she said. “The rowing community is a great group of people. When you’re out on the water with a group of people who love to row, there’s nothing better. And then for those of us who want to push ourselves a little bit harder, there is that aspect as well.”
Dillenbeck said that he used to be a committed runner, but a bad car accident that shattered his heel eventually put a stop to that sport for him. But he has found that gig rowing is a worthy substitute. After the Blackburn Challenge, it took a couple of days to feel right again, he said.
“A marathon is a marathon, whether you’re running it, biking it or rowing it,” he said. “I don’t think you can name a muscle that wasn’t hurting the next day. I think my toes were hurting.”
But all those muscles surely will have recovered for the next big race on the gig rowing crew’s schedule: the 12th annual Come Boating! Regatta, set for Saturday, Aug. 18.
“We’ll have a lot of gigs coming up,” Dillenbeck said. “People will feel the need to come up and try to beat us.”
For Piccinini, the drive to race is bound up with the sheer love of rowing. That feeling is so strong with the Belfast-based crew that the day after the Blackburn Challenge they decided to take the gig the Selkie for a row in the harbor, despite sore muscles and aches.
“It’s about that love of rowing, and finding like-minded people that think it’s just the greatest thing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re going out for a fun row, or rowing 20 miles around Cape Ann. It’s about a love of rowing, it really is.”