Bantry Bay Gigs

Bantry Bay gigs

As a followup to Bantry, the unknown invasion (Newsletter 65, June 2006 pp 24-27) Tom de Voil learned “quite by accident” at a local Rotary Club meeting about an exciting modern twist to the original story. Two apprentice Gippsland Lakes shipwrights participated in the 2006 Atlantic Challenge, sailing Bantry Bay gigs, last July in Genoa, Italy.

The apprentices addressed Tom’s Rotary Club and they aim to build a Bantry Bay gig in Australia for the 2008 Atlantic Challenge. The local Bairnsdale Advertiser also featured an article, on 16 June 2006, about the apprentices and the pulling/sailing boats that are enjoying increasing worldwide popularity.

Bantry Bay gig
A Bantry Bay Gig under sail, with the crew on the rail.

The gigs have become popular with boating enthusiasts in recent years, since one from France and another from the USA engaged in a contest near the Statue of Liberty in 1986, during the statue’s refurbishment celebrations. The contest has grown and is repeated every two years in varying countries, under the auspices of the Atlantic Challenge.The gig fleet has grown rapidly to about 55 in 12 countries, including Canada, Russia and Indonesia. The Challenge accent is on youth training, with participation concentrated on those between 16 and 22 years of age.

French 1796 invasion

The French built the first Bantry Bay gig in Brest over 200 years ago as an admiral’s barge and it is probably the oldest surviving French Navy vessel. The British captured it during their aborted 1796 invasion. After conservation work in Liverpool that boat now rests in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. Its carvel-planked hull is 11.6 x 2 x 0.35 metres (38.17 x 6.75 x 1.17 feet) and it is designed to mount up to ten oars and three masts.

Fleet scattered, commanders return

During the attempted 1796 Bantry Bay invasion, a series of storms scattered the French fleet of 44 ships during their passage from Brest to Ireland. The nominated Army and Navy commanders, in the storm-damaged 74-gun frigate FraternitĂŞ, never caught up. Then, just before the subordinate commanders were due to execute a reduced force landing, another severe storm drove many invasion fleet ships miles out to sea and severely damaged others. The French La Surveillante, was so badly damaged that she was scuttled in Bantry Bay before the storm-battered invasion fleet limped back to Brest.

The captured gig came from a ship called La Resolue, damaged after a collision with Redoutable during the evening of 22 December 1796. Standing off Bantry Bay, La Resolue despatched her longboat, commanded by a Lieutenant Proteau, to locate the Immortalite and request a tow. Instead, the storm drove the longboat ashore on Bere Island near the Bay’s mouth and its crew surrendered to the British.

Pulling into wind, sails stowed.

Like the shorter, beamier and heavier RN/RAN 32-foot cutter, the Bantry Bay gig can be propelled by oars or sail and the gig has pulling thwarts for ten of its normal full crew of 13. Its three comparatively light masts and small sails allow the vessel to be rigged and de-rigged under way. The 38-foot hull has fine lines and is claimed to be capable of six knots under oars in calm water and 10 knots under sail. However, without a proper sailing keel like modern yachts, considerable leeway is made when tacking into the wind. Generally, it is better to drop the masts and use the oars to make ground upwind.

No original sailing rig exists, but modern gigs have standardised on three masts and three dipping lug sails, very similar to those of that historic era. The dipping lug rig means that the yards must be lowered and dipped to the other side when tacking, an evolution that requires considerable teamwork and training, especially in an open boat like the gig. The halyard is then secured to the weather rail to act as a shroud but it is never cleated. Instead, it is dory-hitched with a bight held taut by a crew member. The sheets of the loose-footed sails are always in hand, ready to be eased in a gust.

Sailing the gigs requires skill and fine teamwork. The narrow beam and low freeboard requires constant awareness. When trimmed for maximum speed, any decent gust quickly dips the lee rail under water.


When tacking, the entire crew must work together swiftly and without error. As they dip the main and mizzen yards, the foresail might be backed and the crew might rig a tacking oar to help turn the boat against the resistance of its long keel. Sailing a triangular course, the crew might alternate between rowing and sailing a number of times. All this teamwork makes the Bantry Bay gig a valuable training vessel for young people. It nurtures responsibility and leadership. In two countries at least, the craft has been used as an expedition vessel, with crew members eating and sleeping aboard.

In recent Atlantic Challenges marks have been awarded for skills in pulling, recovering a man overboard, negotiating a slalom, combined sailing and pulling, executing a jackstay transfer, performing a practical challenge, handling as a captain’s gig, ropework, towing and an esprit phase.

Two-mile course

The pulling race typically runs over a two mile course. In the man overboard competition, the craft are under sail then, at a signal, the helmsman jumps overboard. The remaining crew recover this person and finish the race. In the slalom, rudderless boats negotiate a 10-buoy course, leaving them alternately to port and starboard. Penalties accrue if an oar blade or other part of the boat touches a buoy. In the sail and oar race, boats sail twice around a triangular course, with crews rowing upwind and sailing the other legs.

In the jackstay transfer, the boat anchors off a lee shore, veering cable until about 10 metres from the shore. Crewmembers set up a jackstay through a block on the main mast and pass a line ashore. They aim to transfer a heavy bag aboard without it getting wet. The crew then unrig the mast, weigh anchor and race to the finish line.

In the practical challenge, the crew might be tasked with anything to test their problem solving skills. In the towing race, boats are paired as each crew in turn tows the other boat under both oars upwind and sail downwind.

A captain’s gig comes alongside.

Other parts of the competition include evaluating the crew’s performance when handling the boat as a captain’s gig and testing the crew’s ropework skills. Finally, there is an esprit phase when the coxswain and two mast captains are retained, but the rest of a 14-man crew is made up of a mix of crew members of other boats and nations.

Clearly, something positive has arisen from the 1796 Bantry Bay invasion shambles. The Atlantic Challenge group has been highly successful in encouraging the building of Bantry Bay gigs across the world. Its biennial competition in different countries fosters seamanship and other skills of the highest order.