By: Mark Dwyer
In 1818, there were less than 45,000 people living on this vast, majestic island. There was no formal government and – when rowing oars dug into the waters at St. John’s harbour for the 1818 races – it was the fishing admirals who governed.
It would take half a century before Canada would officially become a nation and, of course, another century before we’d even join the Canada Day party.
Incredibly, The Royal St. John’s Regatta has survived a couple of world wars and the 1892 fire that literally flattened St. John’s and left 11,000 homeless. Years, decades and two centuries of rowers have etched their place into the history books and – although the passage of time have taken many of them – the Regatta legacy continues.
North America’s oldest annual sporting event and the city’s iconic August holiday is celebrating a historic milestone – a bi-centenary anniversary that’s expected to draw quite the birthday party and, if all goes well, a record or two may even fall. Heck, to put it in perspective, that first Regatta was staged 74 years before Lord Stanley of Preston offered up a cup to hockey’s top amateur team, the Stanley Cup.
The Regatta, we know, is steeped in history. Thousands of rowers, stretching back generations, have pulled an oar on Quidi Vidi Lake over the past two centuries, although those earliest oarsmen actually raced on St. John’s Harbour. Most have rowed just for fun – just to say they did it – while others have made the sport their life’s passion (more on that in just a bit).
There’s something magical about the Regatta, the games of chance, the party-like mood at pond side, the jarring sound of the starter’s gun and, for many, the tasty treats – whether it’s the French fries of today to the old crubeens of yesteryear. There’s something special about walking along the banks of Quidi Vidi, the same trek our ancestors took to enjoy the races.
Rich Rowing Heritage
Although I’ve never rowed – and have a deep admiration for those who have – I feel as though the sport is in my blood. I was born in Outer Cove, a beautiful little town that’s synonymous with the Regatta. It’s known for its rich rowing heritage and, of course, the most famous crew in the history of the sport, the 1901 Outer Cove Fishermen’s Crew. That crew set a record that would stand for eight long decades, stopping the clock in an incredible time of 9:13. It was a record many thought was unbeatable.
My mom’s grandfather and great uncle – Denis and Daniel McCarthy – were members of that incredible team and their achievement defined them. They actually took that time all the way to their graves. Seriously, what’s etched on my great-grandfather’s gravestone says it all – Denis McCarthy – 9:13. It was how he wanted to be remembered.
Well, the 9:13 was broken in 1981 and the record has changed hands many times since.
It could be broken again this year which sets the stage for 2018.
Outer Cove has assembled a crew that many believe is designed to make history for the 200th. The current record of 8:51.29 was set back in 2007 by Crosbie Industrial Services. The coxswain of that crew, Mark Hayward, is with Outer Cove, as is stroke Brent Hickey and James Cadigan. They stopped the clock in 8:59.70 last year and, with an entire community behind them, are destined to go faster in 2018.
Going for the Record!
The women’s record could also fall. OZFM set the course record back in 2003 with a time of 4:56.70. Ironically, that crew is back for the historical 200th edition, but all eyes will be on M5. The crew, like Outer Cove, have spent the past three years locked in on the 2018 edition. M5 won last year’s title in a remarkable time of 5:00.71 and has the potential to go faster.
This year’s Royal St. John’s Regatta is expected to be bigger and better than ever – on and off the lake. At 200, it’s alive and well with a bright future.
NTV’s Mark Dwyer has been covering the Regatta since 1991. Watch Mark and Glen Carter as they co-host this year’s races live from 7-8:30 p.m. on NTV.
Mark Dwyer, NTV’s Director of News and Current Affairs, can be reached by emailing [email protected]