Remembering the Regatta

For children in the 1950s and ’60s, it was the biggest day of the summer

Published on July 29, 2013
“The Rower,” a bronze sculpture by Morgan MacDonald, on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s. — Submitted photo

By Faith Piccolo

Special to The Telegram

As a kid growing up near the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake in the ’50s and ’60s, the Regatta was not just a day — it was a season.

It was a summer of watching the racing shells on the water from dawn till dusk, rain or shine, as they practised for that big day, the first fine Wednesday in August.

It was seeing the rowers strip off their shirts at the end of a practise run and use them to mop their brows. (This was pre-women rowers.)

It was hearing the coxwains call stroke in the early morning calm, and yell at their crews to “keep in time” or “fedder them oars” or “put your back into it.”

The excitement mounted as the days approaching August grew fewer, and the crowds gathered around the pond grew larger. Many were timing the crews, to get a better fix on which ones to put their bets on.  

A few days before Regatta day, the concession stands would start popping up like mushrooms on the race course.

Most of the vendors were familiar faces who came back year after year. They flogged the usual carnival fare of that time … kewpie dolls, monkeys on sticks and other novelty toys, cotton candy, games of chance and shooting galleries.

One year we had an enterprising vendor peddling moonshine — Jakey’s Gin, it was called. But he got shut down as soon as the word got out.

For kids, one of the biggest pre-Regatta thrills was the arrival of the chip wagon. We would wait for the cook to get his fat fired up, and then be first in line for a plate of chips. The kick was getting them the day before the Regatta, which gave us bragging rights. We were children of simple pleasures, and chip wagons were rare in our neighbourhood.

And finally, the first Wednesday in August would be upon us, and if the weather was not too windy or too wet, we were off to the races.

The east end of the city would be choked with traffic, with a steady stream of humanity converging on the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake for the social event of the season.

The races had begun and the music (“Up The Pond”), announcing the first crews across the finish line, was blaring out across the lake.

Some came to actually watch the races, but for many it was a chance to renew old acquaintances, to greet friends you probably hadn’t seen since last Regatta day.

Others came to watch the parade of people, old and young, rich and poor, as they made their way through the crush of bodies.

Back in those days, the adults actually dressed up in their finery for the occasion, men in suits and ties, women in hats, gloves and their best summer frock.

And, during the course of the day, the odd flask of rum got passed around, to launch the occasion.

The smell of the Regatta is something that has always stayed with me … the dust and chip fat, hotdogs and sweat, perfume, dog poop and cotton candy, all mixed together with the smell of the fog rolling in through the gut.

And, over the din of carnies hollering, babies bawling and kids whooping it up, there’d be the frantic yell of the coxswain blaring out across the water.

The people along the shore who actually came to watch the races added to the commotion, cheering their teams on to victory. … “Come on, Blue Peter.” “Pick it up, Torbay.”

For Catholics of that era, eating meat on Friday was strictly forbidden, regardless of health, social status or any other excuse you might regard as valid.

But one year the Regatta happened to fall on a Friday, and guess what … special dispensation.

The Catholic church had a big stake in the Regatta, with its hotdog and hamburger stands. The pope understood the dilemma, and the ban was lifted for that occasion only. But it paved the way for other Friday Regattas.

My mother, in her younger day, also cashed in on the Regatta by cooking large meals for dozens of church workers.

Our church had volunteers toiling at the different concessions along the race course and at noon they would all make a beeline for our house.

My mother would cram them full of turkey with the works and apple pie, and send them back to work for mother church.

By the end of the day she was nearly crippled from schlepping dinners from a downstairs kitchen to an upstairs dining room.

And while Regatta day was a great time to be a kid in the east end of St. John’s … the day after was just as exciting.

We’d be up at first light and down on the banks to do some serious scouting. There was always money to be found along the race course, and my six siblings and I had become hawk-eyes at spotting currency.

So, this year I’ll head down to the banks of Quidi Vidi on the first fine Wednesday in August, after a 40-year hiatus.

And I’ll be filled with nostalgia for those carefree summers so long ago, and maybe keep an eye out for lost coins.

Faith Piccolo lives in Halifax.