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Ladies Pilot Gig Rowing

PUBLISHED: 15:25 29 May 2015 | UPDATED: 15:25 29 May 2015

Kat Nickels and the Salcombe gig crew out training

Kat Nickels and the Salcombe gig crew out training

Matt Austin Images 2013

At either end of the county an ever growing number of women are participating in a sport which is on the rise. Andrea Kuhn speaks to two pilot gig rowing team captains to find out why they love life on the water

Zoe Green: 'It’s great when you are out on the water and you see the dolphins and the porpoises, although the other day we were training so hard we didn’t even stop for the seal'Zoe Green: 'It’s great when you are out on the water and you see the dolphins and the porpoises, although the other day we were training so hard we didn’t even stop for the seal'

There can be few sports where you get to compete at world class level in your forties, let alone if you’re not blessed with the perfect physique.

But increasingly women in Devon are taking to the water to get fit by taking part in pilot gig rowing, a team sport with a crew of six.

Kat Nickels, captain of the ladies’ section at a club in Salcombe, South Devon, says being on the water is a major attraction.

“Within half an hour of finishing work I can be in the most stunning place, getting loads of exercise with a really great bunch of people,” she says. “When I lived in London I had to take two tubes and a bus just to play squash.”

Kat Nickels: 'Within half an hour of finishing work I can be in the most stunning place, getting loads of exercise with a really great bunch of people'Kat Nickels: 'Within half an hour of finishing work I can be in the most stunning place, getting loads of exercise with a really great bunch of people'

Although the sport originated in Cornwall there are now almost 20 clubs dotted around Devon’s coastline from Clovelly to Cattewater.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of rowing past the tiny sandy coves which line the picturesque Salcombe estuary on a balmy summer’s evening, even if can be hard work.

“Once you get out there you have to concentrate so you just forget whatever rubbish has gone on in the day and row and afterwards you feel amazing,” Kat adds.

Until three years ago she worked at the South Devon Chilli Farm, where her husband Jason was a partner. Now a self-employed gardener, she has sworn never to return to office work. She has been rowing for seven years and loves the fact that skill is more important than body type: “We have short people and we have one lady who’s nearly six foot tall,” she says. “And we have people from size 8 to size 18.

“My husband also rows and he’s very serious about it. He watches his diet and trains intensively. I am very serious about the rowing, just not so much the other bits…”

Summer will mean a series of races and regattas but after the recent World Championships in the Isles of Scilly, there may be scores to settle in September at the Newquay Championships.

Zoe Green, captain of the ladies section in Ilfracombe, North Devon, admits they will be looking to beat their southern rivals: “Last year we came seventh,” she says. “We were just one second off the final so we’ll be trying to better that. But it’s mostly friendly rivalry.

“Teams can change so quickly. It was only two years ago we were saying ‘if we can be as good as Salcombe’. But if one team loses a few people, because of work or children, then everything can change, so it’s always exciting.”

Ilfracombe is one of the newer clubs which has recently stormed up the rankings to pose a real challenge to the older, established teams.

Unlike the sheltered estuaries of the South Devon coast they have to navigate the blustery winds of the Bristol Channel. They launch from the busy working harbour under the towering statue of Damien Hirst’s 20-metre high bronze statue, Verity.

Like her fellow captain, Zoe, 38, also left London for the outdoor life and after a day at her computer working as a digital project manager for advertising agency Bray Leino, she can’t wait be in the boat.

“I love the wildlife and watching the amazing sunsets,” says Zoe. “It makes me feel very lucky to live in this part of the world. It’s great when you’re out on the water and see the dolphins and the porpoises, although the other day we were training so hard we didn’t even stop for the seal.”

The Ilfracombe club started out with a group of enthusiastic fundraisers collecting money for their first boat and it now has more than 80 members.

Zoe says it means that you have to earn your place in the competitive gigs.

“I’ve been really lucky to row in the A crew since I started. I do quite a bit of training really, like the rowing machine or swimming.

“I suppose I am a very competitive person,” she admits.

But whether from north or south, it seems the gig-rowers have one thing in common.

“I think we do enjoy the competition,” says Kat. I definitely think rowing attracts a certain sort of feisty woman!”

Ten things Zoe loves about Ilfracombe:

1: A full English at Adele’s café

2: Rock-pooling at Tunnels Beach

3: The statue of Verity – she’s awesome

4: Rowing at sunset, spotting porpoises

5: Surfing at nearby Saunton

6: Taking the MS Oldenburg to see the amazing wildlife on Lundy

7: A ziz-zag cliff walk to from Ilfracombe Torrs to Lee Bay.

8: Stand-up paddle boarding on a flat day

9: A barbecue in one of Ilfracombe’s hideaway coves

10: A pint of local Wizard Ale @The Pier Brewery Tap and Grill

Ten things Kat loves about Salcombe:

1: Sitting on the bench in front of Cliff House, watching the world go by

2: Salted honeycomb ice-cream from Salcombe Dairy

3: An indulgent massage at Salcombe Harbour Spa

4: A cold beer at the Island Street Bar and Grill

5: Lunch of crab cakes with sweet chilli sauce on the terrace at the Crab Shed, Fish Quay

6: That I can be on the water within 30 minutes from work

7: Cheeky clothes shopping in Crew

8: Enjoying breathtaking views on the coast path

9: High tea at South Sands Hotel

10: A ‘fully-loaded’ pasty from Salcombe Bakehouse


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