Help for Heroes’ Gig Rowing Team opened its 2018 campaign with the longest event of the season in Cornwall on Saturday (10th March).
The six-mile Three Rivers Race, hosted by Caradon Gig Club in Saltash, starts on the River Tamar and sees around 80 boats navigating a unique figure-of-eight course, taking in the Rivers Tavy and Lynher before returning to the dual start/finish point under the Tamar Bridge.
When the team of wounded, injured and sick veterans and serving personnel first came together four years ago at Help for Heroes’ Recovery Centre in Plymouth, the aim was to simply finish the race. They placed last, but they achieved that goal. Now their aim has changed to bettering the previous year’s achievements.
In this season opener, they succeeded, finishing the race in 1h00m45s; four minutes faster than in 2017 placing 55 of 79 compared to last year’s 72. They are not up there with the pros of the gig rowing world; the likes of Caradon who won the weekend’s race ahead of rivals Falmouth and Looe; but they don’t need to be. It is a cliché to say it’s not about the winning, but for these men who have put their lives on the line for us, taking part is their second chance.
On this occasion, just one of the original team members remains, crewing Help for Heroes’ boat Valiant alongside two other returning rowers from more recent years and three novices tasting their first competitive event.
Ian McCormack, who is new to the Gig Rowing Team this year, is a Royal Marine of 15 years, currently serving with Hasler Naval Service Recovery Unit in Devonport Naval Base. The 41-year-old, who lives in Saltash, contracted salmonella poisoning in 2014 which compromised his immune system resulting in reactive arthritis. Ian could not walk and lost the use of his hands. Through intensive rehab and with the right medication he is now more mobile, but still has relapses and will not be returning to active service. Despite his illness, Ian leads an active lifestyle, adapting his activities to suit what he can do to regain his purpose in life, rather than focusing on what he can’t do.
“High impact sports no longer work for me, so rowing is ideal,” said Ian. “I really missed doing competitive sport and being part of a team. Rowing is a great way of keeping fit. I have to keep active as it helps my joints. Doing sport helps me regain as much of my old life as I can.”
Many of the team recognise that gig rowing is not just about maintaining a healthy body, but it is also good for the mind.
“I love rowing. I switch off from everything else in life,” explained Ian. “For me physical activity is my release and I’m at my happiest. On the water I feel totally relaxed and all the stresses in my life disappear. It’s a natural form of medication.”
The Three Rivers Race was the first time Ian has rowed competitively with the Help for Heroes team and he is keen to keep going.
Ian said: “The race was great. As soon as we got off the line we caught a couple of boats and then we passed a few more. I loved the turns and the technique involved. I really enjoyed it. It was good fun.”
The crew now look ahead to what will be their fourth World Pilot Gig Championships in the Isles of Scilly, held over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend.
“Our main aim in the Scillies,” said Ian, “is to do better than the team did last year to push Help for Heroes forward. We don’t just want to be a team that turns up, we’re there to compete. We have a great team ethos and camaraderie, so it should be good.”