The Bermuda Pilot Gig

Reading The Bermudian is always a learning experience. I am usually enthralled by their cultural/historical pieces. Here are excerpts from a fascinating article about Bermuda’s maritime history and the locally-made pilot gigs by Peter Backeberg.

Asked to name the vessel that anchors Bermuda’s maritime history most would, justifiably, point to the Sloop, however, the local Pilot Gig was another innovative and uniquely Bermudian craft that played a vital role in Bermuda’s history. While the Sloop gave Bermudians access to the world, it is the Pilot Gig, and the crews that ran them, that allowed the world to come to Bermuda.

For centuries, ships approaching Bermuda were met by the sight of several onrushing Pilot Gigs locked in a grueling and often dangerous race to deliver a qualified pilot to the deck of the ship. That team would thus earn a piloting fee for safely delivering the ship through Bermuda’s treacherous reefs.

Writing in the Royal Gazette, historian Dr Edward Harris noted that, “It was piloting that facilitated Bermuda’s early forays into the maritime trade of the Western North Atlantic, and indeed supported the 19th-century development of the agricultural economy and the tourist trade.”

The industry seems to have emerged naturally from Bermuda’s seafaring people who, aboard their sleek and maneuverable row/sailboats, were regularly engaged in fishing, whaling, wreck rescues and salvage, transportation and even some recreational racing. The crews onboard these local boats were primarily enslaved black people who were clearly skilled mariners, with the pilots recognised as particular masters of the sea.

Perhaps the most famous Bermuda pilot was James “Jemmy” Darrell, who on May 17, 1795, piloted Rear Admiral George Murray’s 74-gun ship HMS Resolution into a deep anchorage, now known as Murray’s Anchorage, near Tobacco Bay in St. George’s.

So impressed was Admiral Murray that he wrote to Bermuda’s governor asking that Darrell be freed from slavery, which he was.

Darrell, amongst a lifetime of achievements and influence, went on to become a King’s Pilot, which meant he was responsible to delivering British Naval ships into Bermuda.

Post slavery black Bermudians continued to dominate the Pilot Gig industry, and it was a hard earned living.
Thirty-two feet long and often no wider than five feet, Gigs were built for speed, not stability, and required deft teamwork to succeed on the open ocean.

Locally built, they sported two or three stayless spars with triangular mainsails and a jib, i.e. the Bermuda Rig. They were rowed, by six to eight oarsmen, to windward, sailed in a following breeze and helmed by the pilot himself.

One can only surmise that the men operating these boats were hard. Hands like vice-grips wrapped around the handles of 12 to 16 foot ‘sweeps’ powered by a full body exertion that could last hours.

In a diary kept by Albert A. Outerbridge he described the mesmerizing scene of three Gigs racing to meet the ship he was aboard.

“The sea was running very high, and the wind still blew a moderate gale, and it was wonderful how such small boats could live. On they came, apparently almost abreast, under triple reefs, yet dashing through the foam, sometimes lost in the valleys of the waves, and then sailing – almost flying – on their crests, high above us.”

This action took place eight miles offshore, in January, 1868.

Later, with the advent of the Marconi tower and radio transmissions, there are stories of Gigs racing 30, 40 and even 50 miles offshore in search of the piloting fee. Of course, all of this involved risk to life and limb and crews were sometimes lost at sea. One of the more renowned tales is of the crew of the Ocean Queen who disappeared in stormy seas on January 27, 1927. The boat appeared, capsized, several days later off Elbow Beach but the lives of Edgar Smith, Goulrich Richardson, George Brangman, Robert Gibbons and Ernest Tucker were lost forever.

Fredrick W. Keith, in a fascinating article written in 1938 for Motor Boating magazine, described the relationship the crew of the Ocean Queen, and other Pilot Gig teams, would have shared. He reported that the government had little jurisdiction over the piloting business other than to “designate” pilots (how this was done was not explained).

The Gigs were funded by the team of mariners that ran the boat with the fees divvied-up according to a prescribed formula in which the pilot received a larger share and money was set aside for boat maintenance and repair.

Keith wrote that there was also an etiquette amongst the Gig crews. For instance, a share in a pilot boat was for life and meant an oarsman or pilot could only ride in that boat. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.thebermudian.com/culture/the-consummate-bermudian/the-bermuda-pilot-gig/

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