The Royal St. John’s Regatta, racing for over 200 years

Posted on August 06, 2021 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments

The Royal St. John’s Regatta is the oldest operating sporting event in North America. Historians believe that there were sailing and rowing races on St. John’s Harbour and Quidi Vidi Lake before any documentation. But, the first recorded rowing competition was on August 12, 1816. Two years later, the first officially organized Regatta was held on September 22, 1818 in St. John’s Harbour. 


Overview of rowing race, vendors and crowds at Quidi Vidi Lake
Overview of rowing race, vendors and crowds at Quidi Vidi Lake


Committee Organization 

After eight years of impromptu events, a committee was formed in 1826 to organize an annual Regatta on Quidi Vidi Lake. The Amateurs of Boat Racing committee included nine members (now known as The Regatta Committee with about 50 volunteers). 

Following a period of hiatus from 1861-1870, a new Regatta Committee was formed in 1871 to plan an event on August 3 that same year. It’s thought that the tradition of having the Regatta on the first Wednesday in August began around this time. 

Diversity in the Races 

Initially, competitors and committee members involved with the Regatta were predominantly men. The first year that women competed was 1856. However, women did not compete again until 93 years later when female crews were officially introduced in 1949.  

Women gradually became more involved in the sport. In 1977, the first female coxswain led a crew at Regatta races and in 1983 the first woman joined the Regatta Committee. 

Further progress occurred in 1999 when the Committee ruled that men and women would alternate each year to row in the coveted first two morning races. This gave both genders an equal opportunity to compete during the best conditions and set records. By this time, 70-80% of crews were women. 

Female crews racing on Quidi Vidi Lake
Female crews racing on Quidi Vidi Lake


Regatta Cancellations

Over the years, death of monarchs, local fires and political discord resulted in cancellation of the Regatta. However, it’s estimated that there have been just 24 years in total with no annual event. 

In 2020, there was another cancellation for the first time in 80 years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, with safety and crowd control measures in place, the Regatta was back in 2021.


Crowds gather at annual Royal St. John’s Regatta
Crowds gather at annual Royal St. John’s Regatta


The Royal St. John’s Regatta Today

The Regatta is now a well-known annual event that brings crowds of up to 50,000. While still a sporting event, it has also become a social occasion. With the vendors around the lake, patrons can enjoy food, concessions and carnival games. 

When asked about the Regatta’s progression over the years, Bradley Power, president of the Royal St. John’s Regatta Committee, commented that the event “… has evolved significantly over the last 200 years. … Equipment evolution, including the modernization of policies related to equality and diversity, has significantly grown the sport in recent years and made the operation at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, more inclusive and accessible than ever before.”

Thinking about the future, Power says: “We look forward to advancing and modernizing the sport for 200 more years to come.”

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