MORE than a 1,000 people, a majority of them gig rowers attended the funeral at Truro Cathedral yesterday of Devoran boat builder 67-year-old Ralph Bird, who slipped his anchor after a long battle against illness fought with immense fortitude.

Wearing their bright club colours at the request of Ralph’s family, the rowers representing clubs from all over the South West and Wales joined boat builders, family and friends to salute and say farewell to one of Cornwall’s best known builders of pilot gigs - a modest man who was the prime catalyst for the revival of the sport of gig racing on mainland Cornwall in 1986.

The huge contribution this kind, mild mannered and unpretentious gentleman made to the sport, the preservation of old gigs and the building of new gigs can only be described as immeasurable. Not only was Ralph a traditional boat builder and model maker, his enthusiasm and passion for gigs, sailing pilot cutters, wooden boats and the history of his beloved village of Devoran took him on the path of research. An amateur maritime historian over many decades Ralph amassed a great deal of detailed information and photographs on all of his subjects.

His colourful talks to the public delivered with the same intense passion were inspirational leaving his audience spell bound. He lectured on boat building at Falmouth Marine School with weekly visits to the National Maritime Museum Cornwall where he was heavily involved in many superb restoration projects.

A visit to Ralph’s small workshop at Devoran was an education with all sorts of boat building implements, timber and tools the traditional master craftsman used in his daily work.

I first met Ralph in 1991 when he was building the gig Fury for the Falmouth Gig Club and later the gig Idas. Before this Ralph and Ted Pentecost built the gig Energy. Ted, who established the Falmouth Gig Club, said of his life long friend. “Ralph was a master craftsman without doubt.”

An official measuring officer for the Cornish Pilot Gig Association (CGPA) Ted was responsible for ensuring new gigs were built to the organisation’s detailed specifications. In the case of the Idas it was a typical “Tree to Sea” story. A log of narrow leaf Cornish elm was donated to the club by farmer Michael Dunstan of Nancenoy, near Constantine.

Pilot boat coxswain Nigel Pascoe and his wife Helen along with other club members helped drag the log out of the woods on the farm from where it was taken to a sawyer and made into planks. The rest is history. Idas proved to be a winning boat with the right crew.

The Falmouth Club has done Ralph proud over the years by winning many World and County championships and other notable races in both gigs in particular with the Idas in which rowers have won the Men’s, Ladies’ and Veterans’ World titles.

Before the First World War gig racing was popular in Newquay. Resurrected in 1921 by members of the Newquay Rowing Club it died out again in 1930.

Ralph had a personal crusade not only to revive gig racing in Cornwall but to see gigs racing on the Fal again. He persuaded the Newquay Rowing Club to loan him three gigs in 1981 when he instigated the Ralph Bird River Race.

In December 1986 Ralph and his associate George Northey from the Newquay Rowing Club held a meeting at Ralph’s cottage at Carnon Mine with a number of other people from four clubs. All present decided that all future gigs should be modelled on a standard gig.

The following January, in the Royal Hotel, Truro, Ralph Bird’s specifications (based on those of the Treffry gig built in 1838 by William Peters) were adopted as standard and the association was christened the Cornish Pilot Gig Association. Membership of the CPGA today stands at 52 clubs, with 115 registered gigs. Ralph Bird is President and Life Member of the CPGA.

Today it is estimated that more than 7,000 people of all ages are actively involved in gig racing.

The huge legacy that Ralph leaves in his wake is immense.

Not only was he instrumental in reviving gig racing in the County but he also built 29 gigs during his distinguished career.

On a beautiful summer’s day in 2007 all 29 of Ralph’s gigs were on the beach at Newquay when his last gig aptly named Ralph Bird was christened and launched for the Porthgwain club in Wales.

Clubs around the entire coast of Cornwall have pilot gigs built in that small but functional boatshed at Devoran where the master boat builder worked away at his own pace to turn out boats that resembled pieces of marine furniture so good was the finish.

Ralph built gigs for Falmouth, Helford, Cadgwith, Roseland, Newquay, Rock, Hayle, St Martin’s, Devoran, St Agnes, Bude, Boscastle, RNAS Culdrose, Porthleven, Truro, Caradon and Porthgwain (Wales).

Norma Edwards, his friend and vice-chairman of the Cornish Pilot Gig Association, said the sport owed Mr Bird a huge debt of gratitude. “None of this would have been possible without Ralph,” said Mrs Edwards.

Steady as she goes Ralph. May you rest in peace.