The red eyes at breakfast gave the game away. Heavy night? Heavy weekend in truth. A much-too-old-for-this shake of the head. His bag was packed though, and he was heading back to the mainland. Back to Newquay. Of course – he had been here for the gig racing. That explained the red eyes.
I had seen the gigs when I was on St Agnes. Six boats had raced across from St Mary’s, before mooring up for the afternoon at the Turk’s Head pub. The pub was ready for them and the boatloads of spectators following across; its outdoor bar set up, its kitchen pumping out pasties as fast as it could. And there they stayed, the racers putting in a couple of pints before the scheduled race back; the old boys, presumably my friend from breakfast included, drinking in the sunshine and singing traditional sea songs.
Nobody in any hurry to leave. The scheduled race time came and went; the songs and the beer showed no signs of running dry. Most racers would have been at least five or six pints down before clambering back in for the race home. Which looked creditably competitive all things considered. As did the continued drinking and singing going long into the night.
My friend rubbed his eyes again. He has been coming here for over 30 years, the Newquay gigs racing the Scilly gigs the same weekend every year. There is history here, Newquay having bought some of the islands’ gigs back in the 50’s; some shadowy sounding deal involving a bottle of whisky, according to my friend. They were leant back in the 60’s and they stayed. But even that is fairly recent history in the lives of the boats themselves which were much older than I was expecting. Many of them are over 100; a few refits and paint jobs along the way but still the same old boats with the same characteristics that people who have raced them can tell you all about. Bonnet, Shah, Golden Eagle. And most of the people here on Scilly have raced in them at some point.
And this is the other history. My friend tells me how good it is to come back every year, catch up with those he raced with and against back then. Watch their kids racing the same familiar old gigs. Some of the current racers have kids themselves now of course, running around near the boats they will as likely as not row themselves in due course; watching their grandfathers singing old songs they will in due course learn. He tells me all this and it makes sense. And as he does so it makes sense too that there is more to the reddening of his eyes than just another heavy night.