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Rowing teams take part in conditioning practice at dawn on Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's on July 10, 2018, in preparation for the Royal St. John's Regatta.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

War, fire, political strife and the deaths of monarchs have interrupted the Royal St. John’s Regatta over two centuries of boat racing.

Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the historic sports festival in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador has been called off because of disease for the first time. It’s also the first time in 80 years the regatta has been cancelled.

“We’re devastated,” said Bradley Power, president of the volunteer organizing committee.

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The regatta is traditionally run on the first Wednesday in August, a floating St. John’s civic holiday subject to change if adverse weather delays racing. This year’s race was scheduled for Aug. 5.

The regatta has deep cultural and historic roots in the city. The first record of organized rowing races in St. John’s was in 1816. The event officially celebrated its 200th anniversary two years ago and declares itself to be the oldest organized sporting event in North America.

The pandemic joins the death of British kings, a decade of civic unrest starting in 1861, the Great Fire of 1892 and the First and Second World Wars among crises that have kept boats out of the lake.

In 202 years, there have been 24 with no regatta, Power said. The last cancellation was in 1940 during the Second World War.

These days, the regatta draws about 1,000 rowers ranging in age from 10 to 86, and attracts between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators to the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake near Signal Hill.

Power works as director of programs for municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador, so he was aware of the pandemic’s threat to large-gathering events. (As of Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador had 261 cases of COVID-19 infection, with 244 recovered and three deaths.)

“In my day job, I’m intimately involved in the provincial response,” he told The Canadian Press. “I’ve been watching every moment of every day thinking about, ‘Is there a window or a possibility we might be able to hold an event?’ Considering the sheer size of our event, we just had no choice.

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“It’s a significant thing for Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s our biggest tourism event of the year.”

The crews of six plus a coxswain race in fixed-seat boats. Power said 150 crews entered in 2019. The rowers must navigate a buoy turn at the halfway mark.

“Obviously you don’t see our boats, the fixed-seat boats, in the Olympics,” Power explained. “We go a thousand metres down and then we turn and come all the way back. It’s an interesting challenge.”

The call on whether the weather will co-operate is made early in the morning on race day.

Those who went to bars and pubs the previous evening expecting a holiday take their chances.

“On Tuesday nights, the night before the regatta people typically go out and celebrate in what’s called Regatta Roulette,” Power said. “They drink as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do and some mornings, if it’s cancelled, they have to go into work very hung over.

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“Regatta Roulette is a dangerous game, but it a very special tradition.”

The regatta’s non-profit organizing committee draws much of its revenue from regatta registration and sponsorship.

“We will take a hit, but we will survive,” Power said. “It’s certainly not going to be the end of us that’s for sure.”

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