An evening rowing a pilot gig

Dave Lynch
Posted July 1st, 2002

It’s a warm summer evening on the Burlington waterfront.
The bike path is crowded and the Burlington Boathouse is packed. At 5:30, a small group of people begins to assemble at the corner of the boathouse dock. Some are carrying small backpacks. One reaches under the deck and extracts six 12-foot-long oars from their storage area. A few people grab them and leave.
Soon a boat comes into sight, with two people rowing and a coxswain at the tiller.  It catches the attention of the boathouse crowd as it pulls up to dock. The waiting crew quickly fills the remaining rowing positions for a total of six rowers. An evening row with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Rowing Club has just begun.
The coxswain (captain) begins to bark commands. “Rowers toss your oars.” Rower lift their oars to a vertical position with blades up. The coxswain shoves off from the dock followed by the command “Rowers stand ready.” Finally, the coxswain shouts, “Rowers, row.” The boat quickly moves away from the boathouse into the harbor and heads north. It passes the incoming ferry, with ferry passengers waving and pointing their cameras.
The boat being rowed is a “pilot gig,” a 32-foot rowing craft constructed of wood, copper nails, and rivets. Its origins go back to the early 1800’s and the Scilly Isles off England’s Cornish coast. As sailing ships entered the English Channel, they needed to be guided by local “pilots” to navigate the treacherous reefs and submerged rocks. The first “pilot” to reach an incoming ship was hired. They were also used as local transportation, as well as salvage and rescue boats, and they were the vessel of choice for smugglers.
The boat being paddled from the boathouse is the “Osprey,” one of five the Maritime Museum owns. Four were built by Addison County youths, and one by inmates of the Northeast Correctional facility. The “Osprey” is modeled after a boat built in 1842 that is still rowed today.
The rowers continue to paddle north, taking a few breaks along the way to enjoy the beauty of the lake. Soon they put in at a small cove north of Leddy Park and go for a short swim. One of the dependable female rowers breaks out a bag of truffles and any thought of burning off a few calories tonight is quickly forgotten.
The sun is setting over the Adirondack Mountains as they begin the row back, practicing their boat skills along the way. They approach the boathouse and once again catch the attention of people on the waterfront. After docking, the oars are returned to storage and the boat safely placed on its mooring.
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Rowing Club has been rowing out of the museum in Vergennes for several years. The Burlington waterfront location was added in 2001. Rowers meet at 5:30, with an experienced coxswain, who is provided by the museum. Boats can be taken out for about two hours.
The purpose of the club is to go out and have fun, meet new people, and get some exercise. It is not a club for competitive rowers, but certainly can be an introduction for those who wish to become competitive. The Museum does sponsor races, and they travel to other competitions in New England.
The annual membership fee is $50, with the first row free. Reserving a seat is on a first-come, first-served basis. Rowing starts in the middle of June, and lasts until we run out of sunlight or participants. With the great weather last summer, we were able to row into October. For more information and to sign up, call the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 802-475-2022 or email npatch@
[Lining up for the start of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s “Spring Wave,” an annual regional rowing race. Photo by Tim Clark. ]