The 29th World Pilot Gig Championships are under way in the Isles of Scilly, with Help for Heroes’ Gig Rowing Team taking their place on the start line for the fourth year. Some familiar faces make up the team, reaping the physical and mental benefits that gig rowing offers, assisted by some willing newbies with just a few months’ experience under their oars.
The first event of the weekend saw the over 40s face the water in a race against 55 other gigs. The start line is at one of the ‘off islands’, St Agnes, where the teams face a long row back to St Mary’s Quay. Historically the Help for Heroes crew, in boat Valiant, finish last in this race, with the more experienced crews stretching out in front. This time the tale was not so different, though they did arrive home ahead of a couple of lagging boats behind them making for a good effort all round.
New to the team this year is Royal Navy veteran Brian Playfair who was medically discharged in 2016 after 13 years’ service, with physical and mental health wounds. PTSD and depression massively impacted on his life.
“When I came out of the Navy my mind was still very fixated on what I went through. I couldn’t shut off from it,” said Brian. “I didn’t have any real sense of direction in life and I didn’t feel many people around me understood what I was going through.”
As a medic, Brian left service still carrying the baggage of what he saw and did. When he heard that Help for Heroes were looking for new rowers, he quickly signed up, and almost two years after his discharge found he had regained some of the military spirit he left behind.
“I was at a point where I wanted to get back in to a team sport. I’d started to think more about my fitness and I wanted to combine that with doing something in a military environment where I could be myself. I found a sport I really enjoyed in gig rowing so it was all the better. It’s taken me a couple of years to get to that point and I still have off days but I’m getting there.
“When I’m on the water I feel free, focused and just happy. The camaraderie between us is brilliant. We can let loose. We understand each other. We’ve all been through the ringer in similar ways. It’s helping with fitness which helps with my sleep. It gives me more focus in my family life and my day to day life. It’s given me more direction and helps me to chill out.”
For Brian, gig rowing has been a stepping stone. He has since trialled for the Invictus Games UK Team and he has committed to a 12-week fitness programme, run by the NHS’ Livewell Southwest, which is going well.
“A lot of people told me doing physical activity helps with depression. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe that, but I did think the best thing for me to do was hide myself away and I’d come out the other side eventually by myself. Now, going to the gym, I don’t get time to think like that because I’m throwing myself into that and I don’t need to go to that place anymore.
“I want to continue rowing and improving my fitness, and I’d like to combine that with doing more for charities like Help for Heroes who have supported me. I enjoy helping others. It’s what I did for a long time. It’s my happy place. If I can inspire other people by doing what I’m doing then all the better.”
The World Pilot Gig Championships 2018 are being broadcast on Facebook Live at www.facebook.com/gigrower