Gig (boat)

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A painting of HMS Pique's gig in 1835 John Christian Schetky (1778-1874) - HMS 'Pique's' Gig - BHC2258 - Royal Museums Greenwich.jpg
A painting of HMS Pique 's gig in 1835

A gig /ˈɡɪɡ/ is a type of boat optimised for speed under oar, but usually also fitted with a sailing rig for appropriate conditions. The type was in use by Deal boatmen in the 18th century. It first occurred as a naval ship's boat after Deal boatbuilders recommended a different design to boats ordered from them by the Royal Navy to equip the cutters purchased in the 1760s to combat smuggling. The captains of larger warships soon sought permission to substitute a gig for one of the heavier boats which were then used; some even had a gig built at their own expense. The gig therefore became part of the usual complement of ship's boats used in warships.


Gigs also had civilian uses, being employed to take pilots to and from ships, carrying mail and people for vessels waiting at anchor for favourable winds, salvage and lifesaving and for smuggling. They could be found in places like the Mersey, as one of the faster and lighter boat types providing communication with ships anchored off the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, and also from Deal to the Downs. The West Country is well known for its pilot gigs, with surviving and new-built examples now being raced at a large number of clubs in the region. [1] [2] :100–110 [3] :46–47

Gigs were lightly built, usually of clinker construction. They were narrow for their length. Typically, in naval gigs a beam of 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) was used for hull lengths from 20 to 28 feet (6.1 to 8.5 m) propelled by between four, six or eight oars. Exceptions included gigs pulling ten oars. [2] :106 [3] :87–88 Oars were always single-banked [lower-alpha 1] in a gig.

Some would describe larger gigs as a galley, with regional variation on this terminology for civilian craft. Others regard the galley as a similar but different type. [2] :106-107 In Royal Navy usage of the latter half of the 19th century, the captain's gig was always referred to as "the galley". [4] This contrasts with the US Navy usage: here the "captain's gig" was originally the traditional wooden boat, but in recent times a fibre-glass hulled powerboat which provided transport for the captain to and from his ship. [5] :94


Lines plan of a 32 ft Royal Navy gig of 1869 32 ft RN gig 1869.jpg
Lines plan of a 32 ft Royal Navy gig of 1869

The Royal Navy had, by the middle of the 18th century, a long-standing relationship with the boat builders of Deal. The Navy bought their clinker-built yawls and cutters which contrasted with the carvel hulls of boats built in the Navy yards. The working boats of Deal were well known to all in the Navy when they came out to warships anchored in the Downs. In 1763, the Navy bought thirty cutters cutter in the sense of the small warship or revenue protection vessel. These were to combat smuggling. To ensure they were properly equipped with boats, a dozen cutters (in the ship's boat meaning of the word) were ordered from Deal boatbuilders. A discussion with four of the local boatbuilders ensued, and they gave the firm advice that the ordered boats were not suitable for catching smugglers. (The Deal boatmen had a reputation for involvement in a substantial amount of smuggling at the time. [6] :65–66) What was recommended instead was the gig, a type of boat used locally. The Navy accepted the recommendation. [3] :44–47,66

When war started with France again in 1793, naval captains came to prefer smaller, lighter boats than the barges that they were issued with. The barge was meant to match the status of the officer they carried, but something that could be launched quickly and achieve a good speed was much more useful. Some brought on board boats that were their own property. Others just ignored the barges carried and used one of the cutters out of their ship's selection of boats. Gigs were the most popular of the private boats; Nelson had one on HMS Elephant in 1801. By 1808 it is clear that the Navy had accepted the gig on vessels other than the anti-smuggling cutters. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars gigs were available in six different lengths (18 ft to 26 ft) for issue to British warships. [3] :46–47,63


The gigs generally had a high wineglass transom, full keel, straight stem and somewhat rounded sides. There was in general very little rocker in the keel. The gunwales on many were nearly straight from bow to stern.

Howard Chapelle mentions the belief of W.P.Stephens that the gig was the precursor to the Whitehall rowboat  being built (in New York) by former apprentices in the Navy Yard. [lower-alpha 2] [7] :196


U.S. Navy sailors on the USS Essex (LHD-2) raise their captain's gig aboard (2002) US Navy 020812-N-8590G-001 Sailors raise the captain's gig.jpg
U.S. Navy sailors on the USS Essex (LHD-2) raise their captain's gig aboard (2002)

With the coming of metal ships and combustion engines the size of the captain's gig increased and the boats could transport more sailors swiftly.

In the U.S. Navy, the captain's gig varied by the size of the ship, with aircraft carriers and, until the mid-1990s when they were decommissioned, battleships, typically assigned a double cabin cruiser that was 33 to 35 feet (10 to 11 m) in length. These boats were typically painted with a white superstructure and gray hull with a red waterline stripe and black hull below the waterline. Because these capital ships also held a dual function as flagships for an embarked admiral, an identical vessel, albeit painted with a black hull and green waterline stripe, functioned as an admiral's barge.

Captain's gigs were eliminated from all U.S. Navy ships in early 2008 in an economy move. [8]

See also


  1. "Single-banked" oars are where each thwart (seat) has a single crewmember handling a single oar. The oars alternate between each side of the boat, along the boat's length. This contrasts with a "double-anked" arrangement, where two crewmembers sit side by side on a thwart and each operate their own oar on their side of the boat.
  2. Chapelle does not make clear if he agrees with Stephens on this point. His description of the Whitehall rowboat states that in most of this type, each rower handled a pair of oars, unlike the single-banked gig.

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Galiot Ship type

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Ships boat

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Venetian navy

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This is a glossary of nautical terms; an alphabetical listing of terms and expressions connected with ships, shipping, seamanship and navigation on water, but not necessarily on the sea. Some remain current, while many date from the 17th to 19th centuries. The word nautical derives from the Latin nauticus, from Greek nautikos, from nautēs: sailor, from naus: ship.


  1. "list of clubs". gigrower. December 2014. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  2. 1 2 3 Leather, John (1982). Sail and oar. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN   0-85177-218-8.
  3. 1 2 3 4 May, W. E. (2003). The Boats of Men-of-war (Rev. and expanded ed.). London: Caxton Editions. ISBN   978-1840674316.
  4. Blomfield, R. Massie (January 1912). "MAN-OF-WAR BOATS.—II". The Mariner's Mirror. 2 (1): 7–9. doi:10.1080/00253359.1912.10654564.
  5. Palmer, Joseph (1975). Jane's dictionary of naval terms. London: Macdonald and Jane's. ISBN   0-356-08258-X.
  6. March, Edgar J. (1970). Inshore Craft of Great Britain in the Days of Sail and Oar. Vol. 2 (2005 ed.). London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN   1-86176-269-0.
  7. Chapelle, Howard Irving (1951). American small sailing craft, their design, development, and construction ([1st] ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN   978-0-393-03143-0.
  8. [ dead link ]