Fog blanketed St Mary’s on Sunday morning, causing round three of the World Pilot Gig Championships to be cancelled. Fortunately it lifted in time for the finals to take place but with more fog forecast it was a race to get everyone to the start line and away on time.
First to go out were the ladies, with Caradon Ladies A, Help for Heroes’ affiliated club, at the top of the table in Ann Glanville. On board was Kate Bourn, who has been voluntarily coaching our crew since 2016 and has recently taken up a post as Sports Recovery Officer in the Recovery Centre in Plymouth. Defending two back to back titles, the ladies powered through to claim their third World Championship. A quick celebration and Kate was jumping ship to head back out to the start line to cox the Help for Heroes team. That’s dedication!
In the men’s final, first off the line in group M were two of the Help for Heroes team of nine, Dave Jones and Brian Playfield, who had answered a plea from Cape Cornwall Gig Club for two rowers to make up their numbers over the weekend. They put their everything into the row and drove the gig, Brisons, over the line to claim the win for their group.
Army Reservist Dave Jones, sustained severe injuries to one eye and suffered hearing loss in a blast in the field. He was with the gig rowing team in the Isles of Scilly in 2016 and has returned to compete with the crew this year. After competing in the Veterans’ Race with Help for Heroes on Friday evening he then moved over to help Cape Cornwall for the Men’s Race.
“The offer came up to row for another club because they were short, so we went for it. It was another opportunity to get more race experience. It’s different learning how to row how they row rather than how we row but it’s good.
“I enjoy being on the water and it’s the camaraderie of being with blokes in the same sort of boat as me, so to speak. It’s nice to be around serving or previously serving rather than civilians that don’t get you so much. It’s not just about taking part in the racing, it’s everything else that goes with it.”
In the final of group I, Help for Heroes sat in eighth place at the end of their last heat. Looking to climb up the ranks, they started strong and held their own out in front. The pack soon split with the front six pulling away. Our crew in Valiant were in the thick of it, remaining in the top three for the majority of the race.
In the last few moments, a rush from the group made for a close finish over the line, with Help for Heroes in fourth, moving up four places after a phenomenal row. The team finished the Championship in position 100 of 148 gigs. Although a few places behind last year in numbers, there were 17 more gigs on the start line so on balance, the crew brought their best and it showed in the final result.
Former Royal Navy Commando Simon Grayson served for 18 years, initially as a medic prior to Commando training, before being medically discharged in 2016.
He suffers from a genetic condition, Haemochromatosis, which causes severe lethargy and requires regular hospital treatment. He also suffers from anxiety and depression and has serious hip problems due to osteoarthritis causing pain when sitting or standing for long periods.
Osteoarthritis forced Simon to give up his secondary career choice as a chef as he couldn’t continue doing it physically, which has had a negative effect on his mental health. It also limits him playing with his children or going for long walks with his dog.
Simon is the last of the original Help for Heroes gig crew, from the 2015 season, and has taken part in three of their four seasons to date. In the season he missed, he was having hip surgery.
“When I’m gig rowing, apart from being quite out of breath and feeling exhausted, it’s quite an exhilarating feeling,” said Simon, “especially when you’re racing against crews and being competitive. A lot of these crews have been established through generations; mums and dads and uncles and aunties; and for four years down the line I think we’re doing really well.
“Gig rowing gives me something to do. Other than doing jobs around the house I don’t really do a great deal else so three times a week, I get out the house with like-minded people and go away to regattas, and it’s great.
“I come off the water and it reenergises me so I can take back into my home life. Especially on weekends when we go for an early morning row on a Sunday normally I wouldn’t really do a great deal but I’ve found I’ll go back and do something with the kids and my wife and it starts me up nicely for the day.”
Simon recognises that even in just a few years the team has changed from having more rowers with physical injuries to seeing many with mental health wounds taking part.
“We had a lot more visibly injured personnel in the initial crew and now we’ve got more with Hidden Wounds from a very similar background, and work off each other as there is a real good team spirit and camaraderie.
“In the last few weeks we’ve had a couple of the guys who were quieter in the group start to do things more socially. I invited the crew to mine for Sunday dinner and one of the lads got quite tearful about the whole experience because it was the first time he’d engaged in that type of activity in quite some time. We’re always helping each other out, meeting up for coffee, outside of the rowing so it’s good.”
Taking part in an activity like gig rowing has a wealth of benefits in so many other areas of a wounded serviceman or veterans life.
“The benefits in this are huge. It’s not just for the service personnel who are in direct receipt of the trips away and the activities organised, the positive effect that that then takes on to their families and the wider service community.
“Without the support of Help for Heroes I wouldn’t be sat here in the Isles of Scilly in the World Gig Championships but I also feel that I probably wouldn’t have very much drive or purpose to do anything outside of my normal mundane work life.”
With many of the gig rowing team committed to continuing with training to support their recovery journeys, and a full season of events ahead, on the water is the place to be.