Historic Rowing Regatta's 200th Anniversary - My Visit to St. John's, Newfoundland

by Richard MacFarlane

What rowing regatta is the most historic in Canada, in North America, perhaps the world? The Royal St. John's Regatta. This rowing spectacle predates the Oxford-Cambridge boat race (1829) and the Henley Royal Regatta in England (1839). It is known for many crew successes, especially the 1901 Outer Cove Fisherman's crew.

Established in 1818, this regatta is unique in many ways. Rather than using the sliding seat, competitors do fixed seat rowing. Rather than using eight sweep oars, they use only six. And rather than rowing straight down the course to the finish line, athletes row to the half-way point, then turn, and row back to the start line.  

As a rowing historian for 40 years, I simply had to see this regatta.

Richard attends the 200th Anniversary Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018

Richard attends the 200th Anniversary Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018

St. John's was packed with visitors. After all, this was the 200th anniversary of the regatta.

The tradition is that the whole city of St. John's shuts down. It feels like a national holiday. In fact, it is a civic holiday unlike any other. The stores are closed, businesses locked up. This is Regatta Day, and everyone from St. John's and surrounding communities shows up to cheer their rowing teams.

Dawn arrived with fevered anticipation. It was Wednesday August 1st. The regatta committee convened, early morning, as they have done for 200 years, August 1st, to check the weather forecast. If the conditions are favourable, the regatta proceeds. If the weather is nasty, they delay the regatta, day after day, until the lake calms down and they have sunny skies.

No delay this time.  It was a beautiful clear sunny sky. The temperature was 27 celsius, and the water was calm. Hardly a ripple on the lake by 9:00 a.m. Perfect rowing conditions.

Striding along Quidi Vidi Road, approaching the shoreline, I heard and felt the immense crowds, the shouts, the laughter, and excitement. It wasn't just about rowers. It was a carnival atmosphere as exhibition booths offered all kinds of games, candy floss, and toys for young children. Chip trucks and vendor food stations offered a variety of beverages and burgers, fish specials, and fries. Everyone was in a happy mood. Families were strolling with children in tow. Hugs and kisses to winning crews, iPhones at the ready, for that precious photo of your son or daughter, your mother or father (masters level), and champions, all ages, rowing and racing all day.

It is said there were upwards of 45,000 spectators watching this fixed seat racing, more than the usual crowd. And many more crews racing, over 150, twice the normal amount.

This regatta also has the shot gun fired at the start and finish of each race. In Ontario, the shot gun is no more, the rifle crack that brought tingles up my spine since I started racing in 1973. We have the horn.

A women's crew from Toronto won a race. Another crew, so they said, travelled all over the world, competing at various regattas, and made a stop to participate at this historic event.

In 1993, the "Royal" designation of this regatta, Royal St. John's Regatta, was granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen visited this event in 1978 and the annual August 1st date was moved to July 27th to accommodate her schedule.

The women and men row in wider hull wooden boats than the sleek and narrow rowing shells associated with sliding seats and carbon fibre.  Port and starboard had three oarlocks each, fixed to the gunnels. White cushion seats were indeed fixed. With a little help from grease, each rower slid to the front edge of the seat, then to the back edge, having at least one third of a sliding run in their rowing strokes. So the rowers aren't as rigidly fixed as I first thought.

The varnished wooden boats have white lettered names, neatly written like calligraphy, such as The Henley, The Broker, Miss Tubular, Iceberg Gold, and Cougar Helicopters.

Under ideal conditions,  a women's crew that morning broke the record, with a superb time of 4 minutes, 56.1 seconds, breaking the old time standard, set in 2003, by six tenths of a second. It's pandemonium along the shore as spectators cry out victoriously, applaud and wave. It is a moment I soak up and it envelopes me. This is why I am here. This is my sport, my time, my love. It's magic on the water.

Incredibly, all rowers participate and enjoy rowing free of charge. They row for a sponsoring company or community.  Anaconda Mining, Tim Hortons, Rogers, Chevron, Sobeys, and Marine Atlantic are some sponsors of these races, equipment, and athletes. This is another unique aspect to this historic event. No one else in Canada that I know of, rows for free.

200th Anniversary of the Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018.  Photo credit: FISA and World Rowing.

200th Anniversary of the Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018.  Photo credit: FISA and World Rowing.

A colourful history of this regatta has just been released in local shops and bookstores. Written by local historian, Jack Fitzgerald, "Regatta: A New History" is full of anecdotes, funny happenings, record races and, as in all sport, the great, the average, the bad, and the ugly. Yet still, this regatta perseveres. The community spirit shines through. St. John's  residents pull together, as one. The volunteers are revered.

My next destination is Harbour Grace, a historic town about one hour north of St. John's. My taxi picked me up and in the late afternoon, I arrive at Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed and Breakfast.

Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland

Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland

Lynn and George Butler, wearing blue, celebrate with guests on their front porch

Lynn and George Butler, wearing blue, celebrate with guests on their front porch

The Rothesay proprietors, Lynn and George Butler, welcome me in very friendly and warm tones. "Wonderful to have you stay with us," George says. "Let me take your bag upstairs and show you to your room."  Maggie, their lovely cross Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and Dachshund, already makes friends with me. She is the guest greeter as well and follows Lynn wherever she goes.

George regales me over the next five days about the history of Harbour Grace, the heritage of Rothesay House, the fishing industry, the locals in town.  I am a historian and a lover of heritage towns and so this is perfect for me. I soak up all of the stories, the architecture, the marine life, the fishermen tales of long ago.

I visit museums in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, and Brigus.  In May 1932, Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace to Ireland. Local pirate, Peter Easton, protecting the Newfoundland fishing fleet in the 17th century, made so much money, 2 million pounds of gold, he became the Marquis de Savoy, retiring in splendour, in southern France. From Brigus, Captain Robert Abram (Bob) Bartlett helped Rear Admiral Robert Peary, the American explorer, reach the North Pole in 1908.

Today, Newfoundland tourism attracts visitors from all over the world. Certainly, the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 on the World Trade Center, in New York, with planes diverted and landing in Gander, led to hundreds of enduring friendships with Newfoundlanders. Visitors are returning, year after year, to renew their loving ties to this wondrous land and its people. That United States disaster has accelerated the tourism dollar, for which Newfoundlanders are grateful.

My impressions of Newfoundland?  A huge, forested province. Miles of untouched land. Warm and friendly people, just as I witnessed in the Toronto theatre production, "Come From Away", which has sold out repeatedly. I saw and learned about residents whose lives are intertwined with discovery, pioneering exploits, fishing and the merchant industry, of trade and seagoing commerce. It's as postcard pretty as the colour pictures I've seen in newspapers, books, on television, and on line. The scenery is stunning. It's worth another visit or more, some day.

"You'll have to divide up Newfoundland, east and west.  Do one part one time, then the other, the next time," said Bill Luffman, my taxi driver.

How true.  I was sorry that I hadn't been here years ago.

When Venice is Sinking


So, what do you get when you put three Canadian rowers, one German rower (who speaks English and is new to rowing) and one French citizen who speaks ZERO English but has been rowing for decades all into an old Dutch wooden quad and let them row in the 44th Annual  Vogalonga in Venice, Italy? You get a great story that legends are made of.


On Sunday, May 20th, 2018, Shawna Pereira, Shelagh Baker and CK Andrade met up in Venice, Italy to row in the 44th Annual Vogalonga. The Vogalonga is rich in history and spirit. Originally, it started off as a protest by non-motorized boat owners who had had enough of wakes and fast speeds in and out of the canals of Venice by speed boats and motorized water taxis. In true European fashion, fed up boat owners descended upon St. Marks Place in their non-motorized boats and an annual regatta was born.

The Vogalonga is held on the third weekend in May and covers a distance of approximately 35 kilometres.

Did I mention that approximately 2,000 boats participate in the event?

So back to our boat story.....we now have an international crew of three Canadians, one German and one French citizen. We had never met before and our rowing styles were all a little different, but with attitudes and enthusiasm high, we set out to take on the day.

Our bib number was 1912 (to be noted the year the Titanic sank). Once in the boat, we quickly set off to the start of the race. Shawna Pereira started as coxie, with a plan to switch out during the day. Navigating through the tight (and busy) canals of Venice was a bit of a challenge but there were no major incidents to report at our on-water switch stop. Now in command was Hanlan's own Shelagh Baker. Shelagh guided the boat safely though the waters around the Venetian islands. At out next switch over, CK Andrade took on the coxie seat, for her second time ever. With confidence and ease, CK guided the boat though the next leg of the row. At some point our German teammate made it known that she was not comfortable navigating our quad, and since our French teammate was in first seat, it was decided that CK would coxie the remainder of the course.


So, we row and row and row. The sun is hot and beating down on all participants. As we approach the end of the course we are faced with the "hurry up and wait" scenario. Meaning 2,000 non-motorized boats have all converged at the mouth of the main canal at one time. And we are taking all sorts of non-motorized boats -- canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, gondolas, sculling boats, stand-up crazy peddling concoctions -- if it could float and it was non-motorized it was there ready to enter the main canal towards the finish line.

The beauty of the Vogalonga is the madness of the waiting to enter the canal. It's sheer controlled chaos. Boats so close, you could easily walk from floating boat to floating boat. Oars! Oars in ribs, oars in other boats, oars in your face. All of this madness was taken with a grain of salt by participants and the air was light and easy going as we all waited patiently for our turn to enter the mouth of the main canal. 

Once we were in the canal, it was a straight row to the end of the course. Along the way, people were clapping, drinking, cheering, drinking and clapping us onto the end. Finally....after about eight hours in our quad we reach the finish line. As per protocol, you line up your boat in front of the medal tents. Packages of medals and certificates are thrown into your boat and back you go to row your boat BACK to where you initially launched.


So, at this point our crew had a decision to make. Take the DVP (the main canal, now open to regular boat traffic) back, to drop and de-rig the boat. OR…take Leslie Street (the outside channel around the Island of Venice) to take the boat back and de-rig.

After a lot of back and forth in the boat, it was decided to take the channel home. We saw other boats taking the channel route, but what we didn't know was exactly how wavy and open the water was.

As we slowly inched our way towards our boat drop, we were constantly battling high waves and whitecaps. There was a lot of back-and-forth discussion as to what our next step was going to be when suddenly we all heard "you can stop talking as we are going DOWN."

Within two seconds, a giant wave swamped our boat and all of a sudden, the beautiful wooden quad that we spent the entire day rowing in was now under water.

It didn't take long for people to act. Our German crew mate immediately inflated her life jacket and abandoned ship. She swam safely to shore and waited our arrival. The remaining crew managed to flag down a speed boat that picked up our French rower, however not before he swam back to pick up our participation medals that he left in our sinking ship.

The Canadians representing Hanlan stayed with the boat that was eventually towed into shore by Marine Rescue. Once on dry land we were then approached for our passports and information. The Harbour Master needed to file a report for the live rescue and the fact our sunken boat was now blocking a canal (or, in the way Venice works, a road).

So in the end, everything worked out. People were rescued, everyone was okay and no one was hurt. Our boat was salvaged, de-rigged and was sent back to Holland to assess the damage. We have yet to hear back as to what our damage owing really is.

And, most importantly, thanks to our French rower, we have our medals and proof that we actually finished the 44th Annual Vogalonga.  Now that the story is at its end, we can say that adventure was had and that we now have a story worthy of sharing with a little advice to go along with it. Even if your boat number is 1912, the year the Titanic sank, all you can do is laugh and appreciate that adventures in rowing are priceless. 


Toronto Islands Tour 2018

Toronto Islands Tour

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Come row with us from the Hanlan Boat Club to the Toronto Islands for a BBQ/Picnic with a beautiful view of the city.  If the weather cooperates and we get going early we may be able to row around the outside of the islands, but otherwise we head for the sheltered inside routes.  Either way, it is always a popular and well attended tour.  We always have a safety boat in attendance to make sure all goes well, and to carry provisions. 


•         9:00 am – Meet at Hanlan Boat Club, 6 Regatta Rd, Toronto.

•         9:45 am – Leave dock and travel out to the islands to assess route

•         Noon  – Picnic on the islands (included in price)

•         1:30pm – Head back to Hanlan Boat Club

•         3:30pm – Wrap up



There is adequate parking on the road in front of the club.


Cost is $45 total, which includes boat rental, BBQ and safety boat.  Water and juices are provided but feel free to bring additional beverages if desired.  The safety boat will transport them to the BBQ.  The registration form and your payment should be sent to Hugh Fletcher at 3 Walder Ave, Toronto, Ontario, M4P 2R4 or interac email to hugh_fletcher@sympatico.ca.   The tour usually sells out so please submit your registration as soon as possible.  If you have any food allergies please let us know and we will attempt to accommodate.  If your club is not a member of OAR there is an additional $10 registration fee ($55 total).


Any questions about this tour please contact Hugh at the email above or at 647-229-0055.