In St. John’s, Regatta Day is a public holiday
The shores of Newfoundland, Canada’s Quidi Vidi Lake were lined with record crowds to cheer on the crews competing in the 200th anniversary Royal St. John’s Regatta.
The event, founded in 1818, is North America’s longest running sporting competition, predating some of rowing’s most prestigious contests including the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race (1829) and the Henley Royal Regatta (1839).
As with any tradition that has survived so long this race, known to locals simply as The Regatta, is a blend of past and present. It is one of the only places in the world where coxed six shells still take to the water. In fact, the entire regatta is exclusively raced by crews of six rowers without the aid of sliding seats.
Sitting ready at their starting ‘stakes’ with sterns aligned, the boats take off at the shot of a rifle. They race out before turning around their respective ‘kegs’ and pull like mad to be the first back ‘up the pond’ to where they began. The bright orange rubber buoys that have replaced the stakes and kegs of regattas long ago are signs of how the event has progressed with the times and remains relevant in a place where for hundreds of years rowing has been a way of life and Regatta Day is a civic holiday.
“I think we can hang our hat on a sport that hasn’t really changed much,” says Gerard Doran, a former member of the Royal St. John’s Regatta Committee and author of the historical novel about the 1901 Champions, the Regatta’s most famous crew: A Stroke in Time http://www.worldrowing.com/news/book-review-stroke-time .
“Regatta Day still has a huge presence. It is singularly the largest festival in Newfoundland. Bigger than any other,” says Doran.
“We had approximately 45,000 attend the Regatta,” says Regatta Committee President, Chris Neary. “It was one of the largest, if not the largest ever.” The size of the crowd, amounting to almost half the population of St. John’s, was reflected in the size of the competition itself where Neary reports a “record number of teams with a 56 per cent increase from last year.”
On the water, a new course record served to make the anniversary one that the rowers and fans won’t soon forget.
“There was definitely something that was extra special this year,” says Amanda Ryan, a member of the crew that broke the women’s record that had stood for 15 years.
The other members of the Ryan’s crew were Katie Wadden, Alyssa Devereaux, Jane Brodie, Nancy Beaton, Amanda Hancock, coxswain Dean Hammond, with Maria Clift as spare. They have been training under the direction of coach Bert Hickey.
When it comes to the Regatta, Newfoundland has no rowing clubs in the usual sense. Crews race under the name of a sponsoring company or community. Boats are built to a standard design based on the shell used by that famous 1901 crew. The shells are owned and maintained by the Regatta Committee, which also operates the sole boathouse on the pond. This unique blend of private enterprise, committee stewardship and public engagement removes the burden of cost to participate in a sport that many here regard as being in their DNA.
“Rowers don’t pay a cent to take part,” says Doran.
“It was just such a special milestone for us to hit,” Ryan says of both the record and the milestone anniversary in regatta history. “For all of us on this small island, it was a celebration of what has been a great event for the last 200 years.”