Team JL Spotlight: Joanne Culley
Team JL Ambassador Joanne Culley may not have been introduced into the rowing world until she was 43 years old, but she has been loving every minute of it for the last 10 years. Joanne prefers the wildness of rowing at sea over flat water rowing, starting with gig rowing, and more recently - coastal rowing. Keep reading to learn about gig rowing vs coastal rowing, the exciting World Pilot Gig Championships, and Joanne's goals for Coastal World Championships this year.
JL Racing: How long have you been rowing? How did you get into the sport?
Joanne Culley: This will be my tenth year of rowing, having first sat in a boat at the grand old age of 43.
I was at a New Year’s Eve party dressed as a cockroach (Mexican themed) and a friend said ‘why don’t you come down to the gig club and try rowing?’
I was at a turning point in my life and had been searching for a new opportunity to get fit and make new friends. The next week I turned up at the beginner’s session and have been hooked ever since.
JL: What clubs do you row for?
Joanne: I am a member of two coastal rowing clubs;
Mount’s Bay Pilot Gig Club – Formed in 1986, located in the picturesque village of Marazion, which is located in the far southwest of Cornwall. The club is positioned right next to the beach facing the iconic St. Michael’s Mount, a tidal island with its very own historic castle, giving a spectacular backdrop.
Carrick Rowing Club – Formed in 2020. This is a very new rowing club setup just before the first Covid lockdown. The club is located in Carrick Roads, Falmouth, the third largest natural harbour in the world. It’s a great location giving both river and open water training. It is also the only world style coastal rowing club in the county of Cornwall. The next closest club being some two hours drive away.
JL: What is the difference between gig rowing and coastal rowing?
Joanne: Both coastal and gig rowing are performed at sea and are classed as endurance sports.
The Cornish Pilot Gigs are 32’ long and almost 5’ wide, traditional clinker built wooden boats made using Cornish Elm. They have fixed seats, are powered by six able rowers and guided by a coxswain. The sweep oars are also traditionally made from wood and are 13’ long, held in position by two wooden thole pins, one hard to take the strain when pulling a stroke and one soft to give a breaking point in the event of a rower catching a ‘crab’.
All modern pilot gigs are built to the original specifications of one gig, the Trefry, dating back to 1838.
Gigs were recognised as one of the first shore-based lifeboats that went to vessels in distress, with recorded rescues going back as far as the late 17th century. Their original purpose was that of a workhorse and were naturally expected to move fast about their work and a racing of sorts ensued. The first gig to get to an inbound ship would reap the various rewards, whether that be the pilotage fee or goods to trade.
Modern day racing takes place over the summer months, with boats navigating a kite course over three miles, or thereabouts.
Coastal boats are made from fiberglass and the quads are 30’ long. Coastal rowing uses wider hulls with a leveled off stern to allow water to flow out of the boat. It usually takes place on open water, and does not shy away from waves and wind (unlike it’s flat-water counterpart). It is the extreme version of rowing, and perfect for adventure seekers who enjoy the thrill of the unknown rowing conditions and beautiful coastal scenery. These boats are set up like traditional fine boats, with sliding seats, riggers and skulls. The quads also have a rudder and seat for the cox.
There are two types of racing, endurance and sprint. The endurance format sees crews racing in 4-to-6 km races around multiple turning points. It is a challenge of endurance, skill, navigation, and adaptability to the changing conditions of a longer race distance.
Beach Sprints are a head-to-head elimination style of racing, with a short sprint along the beach, a 250m row, and a 180-degree turn before rowing back to the beach and sprinting to the finish line. Competitions are structured such that athletes who progress further are required to race multiple times within a short time window. This discipline of rowing tests your power and strength, as well as coastal navigation skills and performance under fatigue.
JL: Why did you decide to get into coastal rowing?
Joanne: It was actually a Youtube video of the 2019 World rowing championships held in Hong Kong that first made me aware of coastal rowing. The conditions looked challenging and the turns were carnage, resembling something more like banger racing than rowing. I had been doing a little bit of fine boat rowing on a local reservoir but I was desperately missing the challenges of sea rowing.
JL: What is the most rewarding part of being a coastal rower?
Joanne: I love the wildness and unpredictability of rowing on the sea; it is something that must be respected at all times!
The Cornish coast is famous for its ship wrecks and can go from flat calm to rough and menacing in a blink of an eye. This is what I love; it’s you battling with the conditions, as a crew, it’s an amazing raw feeling.
JL: Is there a moment that you can pick out from your years in the sport where you felt the most proud? Or is there an accomplishment you would like to share?
Joanne: I have lots of fantastic moments, it’s a sport that just keeps giving. I think when I won my first Gold medal at the World Pilot Gig Championships, held on the Isles of Scilly (a group of island located some 25miles off the far SW tip of Cornwall) is right up there.
It’s an amazing three day event, with crews from England, Holland, Ireland, Barbados to name a few. Over 150 boats are on the start line at the same time, all racing towards the finish line. The noise and sights are something you will never forget.
JL: Tell us a little bit more about the World Pilot Gig Championships.
Joanne: The World Pilot Gig Championships are an annual gig racing event held in May on the Isles of Scilly, off the SW tip of Cornwall, UK. There are multiple races that take place over the bank holiday weekend, of varying distance, with veterans (40+), super veterans (50+) and open races.
The longest race is from the island of St. Agnes down to the finish line just off the quay of St. Mary's is approximately 1.6 nautical miles
Women and men race separately, with a full line up of gigs. In 2019 163 gigs were on the women's start line with 160 crews competing in the men's race. The finishing positions from the St. Agnes course determine the seedings for the subsequent heats.
Each gig is seeded based on the St. Agnes race and the heats are split into groups of 12 for the race from Nut Rock back to St. Mary's (approx 1.1 nautical miles). Two heats are held - one on Saturday and one of Sunday morning - with the top two gigs in each group being promoted and the bottom two relegated.
The finals for both the women and men take place on the Sunday afternoon, again racing the same Nut Rock course. Each group then has a winner and the outcome of group A decides who the overall champions are.
This year my crew managed to win the Supervets trophy and secure a very respectable eleventh place in the open final.
JL: What types of training are involved in training for the championships? (on water rowing, ergoing, cross-training, etc?)
Joanne: Training for the World Pilot Gig championships normally starts in November with winter water training. We go out in all weather, rain, wind and waves don’t stop us, we are a hardy bunch!
Running alongside the water training we have weights and an ergo program to help build our endurance. As we get closer to the event we up the intensity and add faster explosive pieces. On average we would aim to be doing at least four water sessions, three to four ergo sessions and two weight sessions a week, bringing us to a peak of fitness in May.
JL: What are your rowing goals for the upcoming season/year?
Joanne: A year or so ago I started World style Coastal rowing and I have really got the bug, having just returned from the British Rowing Offshore & Beach sprint Championships in Saundersfoot, with a silver medal in the Woman’s Masters Quad. The Worlds are taking place at the same venue in October, this is high on my goals list!
JL: You mentioned the Coastal World Championships in 2022. Tell us about your plans and goals for this upcoming event.
Joanne: Following the recent success at the British Offshore Championships, winning silver in the ladies masters quad and finishing sixth in the ladies open double, I am aiming to take part in the Worlds, entering the open ladies double. This will be a massive step up from what my double partner and I have previously done, but with this year’s event taking place on our home ground we decided to take the plunge.
We may be well out of our league but we are going to give it our best shot and totally embrace the experience.
JL: How does JL fit into your rowing life? Why JL as opposed to another brand?
Joanne: JL rowing shorts have been a life saver!
Gigs are 32’, fixed seat, wooden clinker built traditional boats. They are heavy and you need maximum leg drive to get them moving through the water when racing. The races are long, so there is a lot of bottom friction produced, resulting in many blisters. You need the right kit. My JL shorts are now over eight years old and still as good as new.