Newfoundland's St John's Regatta

TED BLANCHARD grew up rowing dories across Newfoundland's Bay of Islands on the province's west coast. The former provincial labour minister is still happiest with an oar in his hands, but now he rows in Quidi Vidi Lake, home to the ROYAL ST.

Newfoundland's St John's Regatta

TED BLANCHARD grew up rowing dories across Newfoundland's Bay of Islands on the province's west coast. The former provincial labour minister is still happiest with an oar in his hands, but now he rows in Quidi Vidi Lake, home to the ROYAL ST. JOHN'S REGATTA, the oldest annual sporting event in North America.

When Blanchard entered the race for the first time in 1950, Newfoundland had just joined Canada and he was a strapping 20-year-old. This year, at 73, he's the oldest man in his crew. But not by much: his five teammates range in age from 59 to 71. When they hit the water on Aug. 6 - barring nasty weather, the race is always held on the first Wednesday of that month - they're hoping to make up for last year's disappointing last-place finish in the master's division. The problem, Blanchard says, wasn't so much age: they had a new coxswain, in his late 30s, who tried to get the boatful of vets to adopt more up-to-date techniques and strategy on the 2,450-m course. "It's hard," he explains, "to teach old dogs new tricks."

Make no mistake: Blanchard's boys are there to win. But the regatta is also about paying homage to tradition. Though it's still a matter of some dispute, the inaugural race is thought to have been held in St. John's harbour on Sept. 22, 1818, to celebrate the 58th anniversary of the coronation of King George III. A decade later, the contest moved to Quidi Vidi Lake in the city's east end, where it's stayed ever since. These days, the regatta draws roughly 400 competitors - two-thirds female - from all ages and walks of life.

On regatta day, the city's residents turn on their radios early to learn whether the races "are a go," making it a civic holiday. If the winds are not too high, thousands head for the lake, leaving mail delivery and their offices for another day. Quidi Vidi turns into a carnival: bandstands, wheels of fortune, dunk tanks, pony rides and concessions offering traditional Newfoundland grub like fish and brewis - all to raise money for charity. "People ask me why I still love it after all these years," says Jack Reardigan, 79, a former rower who raced for the first time in 1944. "I tell them it's like Christmas, only better."

During its long history, the regatta has received three British royal visits - and four competitors have drowned. Only calamities have stopped races: fighting between political and religious factions during the mid-1800s, the 1892 fire which destroyed most of the city, the two world wars.

The regatta also has its share of larger-than-life heroes, like the 1901 crew from Outer Cove, just outside of St. John's, who set a time record that stood for 80 years. More than a century later, the existing mark, 8:57.14, is a mere 17 seconds better. And that's despite lighter boats - and vastly improved techniques.

One thing that hasn't changed is the drive of the competitors. During the winter, serious rowers spend most nights at the gym hitting the weights and working on their cardio. Come May, Quidi Vidi is alive with coxswains yelling through megaphones, and fixed-seat racing shells knifing through the water. "In hockey you can depend on one star," says Patrick Barrington, 25, who began rowing in the senior men's division with his father at 16. "Here it's six equally important guys."

Most of the spectators, drawn by the party atmosphere at the "pond," may not notice that kind of subtlety. But the many purists like John O'Mara, although he never rowed himself, certainly do. O'Mara was a youngster when he starting watching the races with his father. Now 59, the retired CBC broadcaster and the regatta's resident archivist, still feels that buzz of excitement when race day approaches. "It's a beautiful thing to see all that skill and all that effort," he says.

Particularly when you know hardy souls have been racing wooden boats through the waters of St. John's since the days of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Maclean's August 4, 2003