It may or may not be a civic holiday in Newfoundland’s capital city on Wednesday.
Whether residents officially get the day off or not will depend on which way the wind – and how much of it – blows. Regatta Day, held annually within the city limits of St. John’s on the first Wednesday of August, is the only civic holiday in Canada that is determined by weather.
The city’s regatta committee will gather at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday to decide on the holiday’s status – which hinges on whether conditions are safe to proceed with the historic rowing competition on Quidi Vidi Lake.
“The door is locked. No one is allowed to come and go. Phones are put away and no outside communication is allowed,” regatta president Chris Neary said. After scanning weather reports for bad conditions, which commonly occur in Newfoundland, the committee will pass a motion on whether to postpone the race.
If they must, the committee will meet again the following morning to repeat the same process. But if the day happens to be warm, sunny and winds are calm, Mr. Neary will have the honour of emerging to green-light the holiday, including for those who stayed out late the night before partying and would benefit from time off to nurse their hangover (a gamble known locally as “regatta roulette”).
“You get to shut the city down. It is a big deal,” Mr. Neary said of his responsibility. “There’s nowhere else in North America that you get to do that.”
This is not the St. John’s Regatta’s only unique feature.
While Olympic rowing courses are capped at a distance of 2,000 metres, the St. John’s course has always been 2,450, Mr. Neary said. Rowers’ seats in the Newfoundland-made boats are fixed, rather than sliding on wheels as they do in Olympic boats. Fixed seats make the task of rowing the vessel an extreme physical challenge even for those who train hard for the race.
“The fun part is that the course is not one straight line,” Mr. Neary said. “The start and finish line is in the same location. You go down to the bottom of the lake, turn some buoys and make your way back to the finish line,” he said. “The old saying is ‘Races are won and lost at the turn’. And there are some very bad turns.”
Tina Hunt has seen many of them. This year’s regatta, in which she will compete, marks her 30th consecutive competition. She has only missed out on two regattas in her life and her family, most of whom have the last name Ring, has a rich tradition with the race. Her father, Paul, holds a medal for belonging to a 1981 team that included his brother and father that broke an 80-year-old club record. Their team won the championship race in nine minutes, 12.04 seconds. A song was written to honour the feat (although that record has since been broken).
Ms. Hunt has a medal of her own for winning what is known as Newfoundland’s “triple crown of rowing” in 2015. It includes the St. John’s regatta championship and two earlier races.
“We framed the medals and we had a nice dinner,” Ms. Hunt said of winning the rare honour, which came with a $1,000 team cheque.
Ms. Hunt is aiming to contend again this year with her father as the team’s coxswain.
Most teams, she said, begin dry-land training in January with a combination of time on the rowing machine, weights and other sports. The training intensity – and time on the lake – increases as race day approaches.
If a holiday is declared, though, only some townies will get the day off. Because the holiday is civic and not provincewide, only businesses operating within St. John’s shut down. People who live in the city but commute to outlying suburbs for work are not granted time off to watch the races, which have drawn up to 50,000 viewers.
This year is being celebrated as the regatta’s bicentennial – the event is billed as North America’s oldest continuing sporting event – even though the race has not actually been run consecutively in each of the past 200 years.
“We didn’t have regattas during the First World War. And we missed one during the Second World War [in 1940],” said Jack Fitzgerald, a long-time journalist and author who has written several books on the regatta, including the forthcoming Regatta: A New History. Mr. Fitzgerald estimates the city has missed about 30 regattas over the years, although it has run each year since 1941. And he said it remains the province’s most beloved sporting event.
“It’s celebrated the same way we celebrate Christmas,” he said. “People look forward to it, they arrange their summer holidays around it and people who live in other provinces or states, they come back for this holiday,” he said, adding: “When we became part of Canada, we brought this with us.”