Many local historians believe that rowing and sailing competitions between the crews from various ships in the harbour and the local populous pre-date any of the records we have been able to verify. St. John's, with its magnificently sheltered harbour, had become a growing centre of activity and early settlement in the early 1700's. The fishing and trading season generally lasted from May to September. This gave the transient and local population only a few months to form summer friendships and raise a challenge to each other's sailing and rowing skills. The boat racing, which later became our Regatta, came into existence as a natural form of friendly competition among a seafaring people.
The rivalry amongst the crews of the various ships in the harbour sparked both sailing and rowing challenges. Brief early records give reference to the use of "gigs", "jolly-boats", and "whale" boats which were used in early competition. A "gig" is defined as: a light, narrow clinker-built ships boat, adapted either for rowing or sailing. Little else is known of a "gig"s dimensions or use. Most of the boats used during this early period were owned by the local merchants.
The very earliest verifiable mention of a rowing competition dates back to 12 August 1816. In its early days the boat races were held over a space of three days, and old-fashioned gigs and yawls and long boats were manned by brawny sailors and fishermen who won monetary rewards and fleeting fame and the plaudits of a merry crowd of holiday makers.
In the early years challenges were for either sailing or racing. Crews and boats had to be classified or matched so that all challenges could be met. Sailing matches were initially held in the Harbour with rowing matches reserved for Quidi Vidi. Eventually all races moved to Quidi Vidi, perhaps to avoid interfering with a busy port's activity and possibly to accommodate the growing crowds of spectators so eager to watch the festivities.
Long before Newfoundland was granted a Representative Government there was Regatta in St. John's. The Royal Gazette in its issue of 6 August 1816 records the arrival in the port of St. John's of:
the sloop, George
the schooner, Elizabeth
the brigantine, Fame
the brig, Azores
the brig, Unanimity
the brig, Lightning
In the same issue of the Royal Gazette there is a report on a rowing match (which) will take place on Monday next between two boats upon which considerable bets are depending. They are to start at half past one o'clock from alongside the prision ship.
The prision ship was moored in the harbour and there are references to boat races being held on the harbour in these early years.
Throughout the history of Newfoundland the ardent loyalty of Newfoundlanders to the King/Queen and Country remains a proud facet to their character. The evolution of the Regatta also shares very strong links to the major events which surround the Monarchy. The races of 1818 were held on September 22 in order to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King George III's official coronation on September 22,1761. It is from this date that the Regatta Committee takes its anniversary.
For more information about the history of the Royal St. John's Regatta, be sure to visit the Collections Canada website: "The History of the Royal St. John's Regatta Project".