Women row same distance as men for first time in 204-year-old St. John’s regatta

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Four crews of women rowers made history Thursday morning in St. John’s, as they took off toward the end of a downtown lake and raced along a course traditionally reserved for men.

After decades of advocacy from rowers, the Royal St. John’s Regatta included a women’s long course for the first time in its 204-year history. Nancy Beaton was one of six women on the Studio Verso crew, which finished in first place with a time of 10:28.

“The atmosphere was electric after our race, there were so many crowds cheering,” Beaton said in a Facebook message Thursday after the race.

She said she looked up at the race officials’ tower to find them all on their feet, applauding — including Gail Malone, who was the regatta’s first woman president. “It felt amazing,” Beaton said. “Very emotional!”

The Royal St. John’s Regatta bills itself as the oldest organized sporting event in North America. The annual day of races takes place on Quidi Vidi Lake, a 1,600-metre-long body of water in the city that flows through a historic former fishing village and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

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Members of the Studio Verso team celebrate after racing to victory in the women’s long course event at the Royal St. John’s Regatta in St. John’s, Thursday, August 4, 2022. Four crews of women rowers made history in a race from one end of Quidi Vidi Lake to the other along a course historically reserved for men. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bud Gaulton.

The races go ahead only if weather permits, and city residents get a civic holiday on whatever day that happens. The regatta is supposed to run on the first Wednesday of August, but windy conditions forced officials this year to postpone the race to Thursday.

The event in Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city attracts tens of thousand of people, many of whom clap and cheer on the lake’s grassy shores as the rowing teams speed by. Others stroll along the lake’s shores, stopping at beer tents, food stalls, bouncy castles, pony rides and games of chance. Most city services shut down for the day, and its public transit arm offers dedicated shuttles in and out of the party grounds.

Until Thursday morning, the men exclusively rowed a 2.45-kilometre course from one end of the narrow lake to the other. The women rowed half the distance, turning around in the centre of the lake and barrelling back to the start line.

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This year, the long and short courses were options to both men and women. Four teams signed up for the women’s long course — two of “senior” age, which is over 21, and two of “intermediate” age, which is between 18 and 21.

The committee also introduced a male short course, though no teams signed up for it. Regatta committee president Noelle Thomas-Kennell said in a recent interview that she hopes the men’s short course will catch on in the future.

Thomas-Kennell and Ashley Peach are the committee’s first women president and vice-president team, and they took office in January. Thomas-Kennell said they heard the women rowers’ request for a long course “very clearly.”

“It was the perfect timing to include it,” she said. “Myself and (Peach) had it on our radar when we took our positions ? as something we wanted to do.”

Beaton also credited the new regatta rules to Peach and Thomas-Kennell — and to all the women rowers who came before and fought for the change.

Siobhan Duff was part of a 10-time championship-winning crew that began advocating for equality in the course lengths in the late 1980s — they drafted their first official letter to the regatta committee in 1989, she said in a recent interview.

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“What we were campaigning for was parity, was equality,” she said. “And it seemed so far-fetched at the time.”

Duff, 55, began rowing when she was 15, and rowed her last race at age 51. She said she’s pleased to see — at last — a women’s long course. But she said she wished it had been introduced 15 years earlier, when she was on the water winning championships.

“The regatta is, if nothing else, steeped in tradition,” she said. “Change comes slowly, sort of like the Vatican.”

Duff and her former crew provided the trophy for the women’s long course as an alumni gift, she said. They were all at the lake Thursday morning to cheer on the history-making crews

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.

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