A Gig Rower’s Diary

Mel Williams takes us behind the scenes at one of Cornwall’s most successful gig rowing clubs, Falmouth Pilot Gig Club, in our exclusive preview of a brand new series in Rowing & Regatta: A Gig Rower’s Diary.

January 13th

Crew selection at Falmouth gig club this winter has been a serious business. The Ladies’ squad is the strongest it’s ever been – full of young, super-fit rowers, all keen to compete at the highest possible level. We’ve also been joined by medallists from other clubs and an Olympic trained kayaker. The heat is on. Heart rates are monitored, we’re weighed, we’re ergo tested, and we’re seat raced on a freezing cold lake in what feels like the middle of the night. “Don’t look tired” is my mantra – whispered to me once by Karen Beswetherick (rowing legend, 10 times County Champion and counting – also famous for finishing races with immaculate hair, not even one frizz!) Like the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, I can hear her voice echoing in my ears: “Mel… Don’t look tired!” as I try to crawl up off the floor next to the ergo I’ve just fallen off. Or picking myself up from the bottom of the boat, where I’ve just collapsed in a heap. This is gig rowing at its very toughest – physically and mentally. 

As the pressure grows to train, so too does the monstrous pile of clean laundry that sits in my living room waiting to be ironed – only ever rummaged through for favourite t-shirts or a matching sock. There are exasperated calls from the school secretary requesting forgotten instruments and packed lunches hurriedly left behind on the kitchen table. My head is spinning with the number of different hats I’m putting on and taking off in a single day. Mother, painter and decorator, fitness instructor, rower… I’m starting to worry about how long I can really keep this up for…  

I receive a Twitter message from @duncamping: “…you and I were the only ones in our respective clubs to win every (seat) race on Sunday. Woo!” 

I reply @Ladykilligrew: “Well done! Ridiculous competing with girls half our age, shouldn’t we be patchworking or summit?” 

@duncamping: “lol Yes. Probably. My sister does both. But not at the same time. Yet….” 

It’s reassuring that I’m not the only working mother on the planet crazy enough to train for an obscure sport that hardly anyone else in the country seems to know about. Every second of the day feels precious. Life has become just one big crazy mission to squeeze in as much training as possible around work and family. It’s exhausting, I have permanent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and I’m on a diet for the first time in years (to improve my power-to-mass ratio – another new number that has appeared next to my name on an Excel spread sheet!) I’m hungry and miserable. As each day goes by I am falling more and more out of love with gig rowing. 

“WHY AM I DOING THIS?” I wail at my husband. “I CAN’T do this again next year!” 

“You say that every year,” he replies. “You’ll have changed your mind again by the summer.” 

He’s right. The instant the flag goes down for that first race, all the struggling to make time for training will have been worth it – every single minute. This year’s World Championships at the Isles of Scilly will see the biggest start line ever: roughly 130 gigs from all over Cornwall, Devon and Holland.  Every single watt of power earned during those dark winter nights will be unleashed in explosive force over just one weekend of hard and furious racing. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and completely addictive.

January 15th

I can’t stop thinking about food! I quit dieting. I’d rather be a few kilograms heavier and sane (i.e not hallucinating chorus lines of singing, dancing donuts…).

January 20th

Crew selection day is finally here. Two new rowers from the Men’s and Ladies’ squad have each pulled a big ergo score so the decision is made to trial them in each A crew for a month to give them a chance to improve their rowing technique. It’s a bold move. The World Championships are only 100 days away and our crew is still in selection limbo. All we can do is keep calm, train on, and whatever happens “…don’t look tired!”

Find out how Mel’s Falmouth crew gets on this season by following her exclusive diary in Rowing & Regatta Magazine, starting March 1st.