The Royal St. John's Regatta, the Oldest Organized Sporting Event in North America

Updated on March 31, 2019
Stephen C Barnes profile image

Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland for the better part of 40 years.

Crowds gathered lakeside the night before the Royal St. John's Regatta, 2018. Going to the lake the evening before, to socialize and enjoy the offerings of the many food vendors, has become almost as much a part of the Regatta tradition as race day.
Crowds gathered lakeside the night before the Royal St. John's Regatta, 2018. Going to the lake the evening before, to socialize and enjoy the offerings of the many food vendors, has become almost as much a part of the Regatta tradition as race day. | Source

The Regatta

The Royal St. John's Regatta, the oldest organized sporting event in North America, is an annual amateur rowing competition that takes place each year on the first Wednesday of August. If weather conditions are not suitable that day, the Regatta is held on the next suitable day. The event takes place on Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's; the capital city of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland Labrador. Drawing crowds of nearly 50,000 people to the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake each year, as much for the food, games of chance, and the socializing as for the races, the Regatta has become widely known as "the worlds largest garden party." On August 1, 2018, it celebrated its 200th anniversary.

Race day is a municipal holiday in the city of St. John's the celebrating and partying for most people begins the night before, in anticipation of not having to work the next day. There is, of course, a chance of the event being postponed due to weather, as a result partying late into the night, or the wee hours of the morning, on the night before the regatta has become know as playing Regatta Roulette. Many a reveler has awakened the next morning hung over, or even still a little drunk, only to discover "the races" have been postponed, and they have to go to work.

Illustration of the Royal St. John's Regatta, from Canadian Illustrated News, 1875.
Illustration of the Royal St. John's Regatta, from Canadian Illustrated News, 1875. | Source

The Early Years

Though racing competitions between ship's crews were common in St. John's since the 1700s, and perhaps even earlier. The first recorded organized event wasn't until 1816. The first official running of the annual St. John's regatta, however, wasn't until two years later, in 1818, and was held on September 22, not on the first Wednesday of August as it is today, to coincide with the anniversary of the coronation of King George III.

These early races were not the Regatta of today, with it's specially designed, lightweight, fixed seat racing shells, and it's rowers who spend months on the pond training for the single day event. In the beginning, the boats were gigs, yawls, whaleboats, longboats, and whatever other commercial boats, owned by local merchants, that were available, manned by crews of sailors and fishermen. The early regatta was also a three-day event and consisted of both rowing and sailing races: the rowing was held at Quidi Vidi Lake and the sailing in St. John's Harbour. Eventually, all races were moved to the lake.

The 1922 Outer Cove Crew, rowing a Bob Sexton racing shell
The 1922 Outer Cove Crew, rowing a Bob Sexton racing shell | Source

The Racing Shell

By 1840 many people believed that it was time to make the move to a standardized boat, believing that the size, weight, and shape differences between the various commercial boats that were currently being used lead to an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the boat your team was in. Despite resistance from traditionalists, who believed that the fisherman and sailors should race in the boats that were the tools of their trade, the move was made to standardized racing shells.

Many different craftsmen and manufacturers were contracted to make the shells in the beginning, but by the early part of the 20th century most every shell being used was made by the same local craftsman, Bob Sexton. When Bob passed away in 1944, it was the end of the locally built racing shell. Boats were purchased from companies in England and mainland Canada, but it is widely believed that none of these were ever as good as a Bob Sexton boat.

In 1991 and 1994 the Regatta Committee purchased boats from the Hudson Boat Works in Ontario, and these are the boats still being used today. They are six-member, fixed seat racing shells made from mahogany and Douglas Fir. They are 50 feet long, 2 feet wide, 13 inches deep, and weigh 385 pounds.

Rowers line up at the starting line for one of the women's races, Royal St. John's Regatta, 2018
Rowers line up at the starting line for one of the women's races, Royal St. John's Regatta, 2018 | Source

The Races and the Rowers

Just as the boats used evolved over the years so did the races themselves: the three day competition became a one day event, all the races were moved to Quidi Vidi Lake, sailing was removed from the regatta, and the first Wednesday of August was set as race day(though it can be postponed to the next suitable day if the weather is prohibitive. This makes Regatta Day the only weather dependent civic holiday in North America). The rules also evolved over the first eighty years or so but by 1901, when the Outer Cove Crew set its famous record of 9:13.80; a record which stood for 80 years until it was beaten by the Smith Stockley crew in 1981. The course and how it is run was pretty much the same as it is today.

The men's course is 2.450 km, and the women's course is 1.225 km. Both the male and female races require the turning of a buoy, so that the end of the race is back where it began, at the head of the pond.

The rowers have also changed over the regatta's 200-year history. Where once the boat's crews were made up of sailors and fisherman competing against one another in the boats that were the tools of their trades, now are teams of well trained, dedicated, amateur rowers. Some, like Siobhan Duff, a legend in women's rowing in Newfoundland, are ranked among the best rowers in North America, and even the world.

1981 Smith Stockley Crew that broke the 80 year old Outer cove Record. Front row: (l-r)Paul Ring, John Barrington Sr., Brian Cranford. Back Row: (l-r) Bill Holwell, Randy Ring, Skipper Jim Ring, Tom Power
1981 Smith Stockley Crew that broke the 80 year old Outer cove Record. Front row: (l-r)Paul Ring, John Barrington Sr., Brian Cranford. Back Row: (l-r) Bill Holwell, Randy Ring, Skipper Jim Ring, Tom Power | Source
The 2003 OZFM Record setting crew, Siobhan Duff, Tracey Hogan, Kristine Power, Jackie Handrigan, Nicole Hamlyn, Amanda Hancock and Coxswain Richard Bailey.
The 2003 OZFM Record setting crew, Siobhan Duff, Tracey Hogan, Kristine Power, Jackie Handrigan, Nicole Hamlyn, Amanda Hancock and Coxswain Richard Bailey. | Source

The 200th Anniversary

On August 1, 2018, the Royal St. John's Regatta celebrated its 200th anniversary. A number of special events were scheduled to honor the historic occasion, including a "fun" regatta on the weekend prior to the actual races. There was also a concert at the pond the night before, and, perhaps most notably, the reuniting of the 2003 OZ FM women's record-breaking crew. The original 2003 crew was: Siobhan Duff, Tracey Hogan, Kristine Power, Jackie Handrigan, Nicole Hamlyn, Amanda Hancock, and Coxswain Richard Bailey. On the 2018 team, Nicole Hamlyn and Amanda Hancock were replaced by Cherie Whelan and Patti Pittman, and the coxswain was replaced by John Handrigan. Together they would try to defend their 15 year record time of 4:56.70. Unfortunately for this team of seasoned rowers youth won out over experience, as the M5 crew set a new record time of 4:56.10, just 3/5 of a second faster. Siobhan and her team say they intend to come back even harder in the future, and recapture the record.

The record breaking M5 team crossing the finish line just ahead of Siobhan Duff and her record defending crew.
The record breaking M5 team crossing the finish line just ahead of Siobhan Duff and her record defending crew. | Source

Along with all this added excitement was the usual schedule of races, as well as an amazing assortment of pond side culinary delights, provided by a record number of food vendors, all the usual fun activities and games of chance, and performances by the CLB Band.

The author rowing in the "fun" regatta media race. The author, his wife Kim, and 4 other writers and journalists made up the "Writers and Nearly Dead Poets Society" crew. They came 2nd in the media race.
The author rowing in the "fun" regatta media race. The author, his wife Kim, and 4 other writers and journalists made up the "Writers and Nearly Dead Poets Society" crew. They came 2nd in the media race.
A crew getting into starting position for one of the men's races, Royal St. John's Regatta 2018
A crew getting into starting position for one of the men's races, Royal St. John's Regatta 2018 | Source
1987 OZFM Women's Crew (author's wife Kim is 6th from left)  l to r: Bruce Morel, Leona Rockwood, Abby Whiteway, Bernadine Ring, Kim Fudge, Kim Power, Siobhan Duff, Allison Carroll, Scott Sterling. With banner: Patricia Power, Shannie Duff.
1987 OZFM Women's Crew (author's wife Kim is 6th from left) l to r: Bruce Morel, Leona Rockwood, Abby Whiteway, Bernadine Ring, Kim Fudge, Kim Power, Siobhan Duff, Allison Carroll, Scott Sterling. With banner: Patricia Power, Shannie Duff.
The author, Siobhan Duff, and the author's wife, Kim Power Barnes, pond side at the 2018 Royal St. John's Regatta.
The author, Siobhan Duff, and the author's wife, Kim Power Barnes, pond side at the 2018 Royal St. John's Regatta.
The author's grandson enjoying the fishpond game.
The author's grandson enjoying the fishpond game. | Source
Crowds stroll past games, and food vendors, pond side, 2018 Royal St. John's Regatta.
Crowds stroll past games, and food vendors, pond side, 2018 Royal St. John's Regatta. | Source

The Royal St. John's Regatta should be on the list of must-see attractions for anyone planning a trip to Newfoundland in August. Or, better still, plan a vacation around attending the Regatta: come to the pond, experience the races, and be a part of history.

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© 2019 Stephen Barnes

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