History will be made today at a 204-year-old rowing race in St. John's as four women's teams tackle a course that has historically been reserved for men. A female rowing team watches a race during the Royal St. John's Regatta at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's N.L., on Thursday, August 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

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

Four crews of women rowers will make history on Thursday morning in St. John’s, as they race from one end of Quidi Vidi Lake to the other along a course historically reserved for men.

After decades of advocacy from women rowers, the Royal St. John’s Regatta will include a women’s long course for the first time in its 204-year history. The change is welcome, said rower Siobhan Duff earlier this week. But she said she wishes it came 15 years earlier, when she was on the water winning championships.

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

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.

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 until Thursday.

The event 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.

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 mens’ 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 to include it,” she said. “Myself and (Peach) had it on our radar when we took our positions … as something we wanted to do.”

Duff, 55, started rowing when she was 15. She 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.

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

Her crew also highlighted other inequities, she said, such as an award given to the coxswain of the male crew with the fastest time, but not to the coxswain of the fastest women’s crew. Over time, the committee relented on those issues, introducing awards to match those given to men.

But it took over three decades for what Duff says is the most significant sign of parity and the real goal of all the advocacy: the women’s long course.

“The buffalo has to be eaten one bite at a time!” she said.

Duff said she and her former crew members will be at the lake Thursday to congratulate the team that wins it. Patricia Pittman, who was also a longtime member of the crew, will present the award, Duff said.