Another round of Regatta Roulette

Gamblers take a chance on what might be a holiday

James McLeod
Published on August 6, 2013
It was a miserable day for setting up Monday but the driving rain didn’t stop Dawson Hiscock (left) and Glen Moss from setting up the Moo Moo’s ice cream booth on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake. The forecast for Wednesday seems to indicate the Regatta will go ahead. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Tonight, gamblers will take to the streets to play a unique St. John’s game of chance: Regatta Roulette.

It’s a game of luck and skill which values a stout constitution and a canny knowledge of meteorology above everything else.

And it’s possible you’ve played Regatta Roulette without even knowing it.

“Most people may admit to you that they play it. And while some would say that they’ve never heard of it before, they’re actually lying,” said lawyer Jonathan Richler, who admitted to playing Regatta Roulette when he was younger. “Everybody plays Regatta Roulette, so you’re not necessarily penalized for showing up to work hung over because frankly, the whole city is hungover.”

Basically, all over the city people will party and drink, and drink, and drink, and gamble that the weather will be nice and the pond will be calm so they can sleep in and ride out the hangover without having to go to work.

Richler said that gives the night a special sort of energy; it feels risky.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re celebrating the apocalypse; tomorrow could be the end of the world because you might get fired for showing up late,” he said. “In my early 20s, I certainly had to go into work feeling a little woozy.”

Blaine Edwards, another roulette player, said the nervous energy tends to peak around 10:30 p.m.

“There’s some serious decisions to be made around 10:30 at night,” Edwards said.

“Around 10:30 you’ll see people, either they’ll take off and go home, and at about 11 o’clock, you’ll see the people that are really committed.”

It’s unique to St. John’s, because as archivist Larry Dohey said, nobody else has a holiday that depends on the weather.

Dohey said he’s even seen references in old documents to a phenomenon that might be an early version or Regatta Roulette.

“I have seen reference to where employers are complaining where you’re not going to get a full day’s work out of people,” he said.

Edwards said last year, to do something special for friends visiting from Ontario, he rigged up an actual roulette table with shot glasses.

“We filled each shot glass with a clear liquid that looked the same, so water, sprite, some white wine, gin, vodka,” he said. “I escaped relatively unscathed, but we did have a couple friends from Toronto — one guy hit the gin I think, like, three times in a row.”

Richler said that the young roulette players have it easy. He’s in his 40s now, and when he was playing Regatta Roulette seriously, there was no Internet for up-to-the-minute forecasts.

“VOCM or CBC Radio were certainly more of the oracles that you would check,” he said. “If your father wasn't a  fisherman or a meteorologist, you had to depend on the radio for that, so yeah, you certainly checked the forecast with a regular schedule, but at some point it’s just too late. You’ve already had two or three beers, et cetera, and then you just throw caution to the wind, and that’s when the roulette itself happens.”

These days, Regatta Roulette is almost an institution, with a big concert on George Street on Tuesday night, the culmination of the George Street Festival.

But George Street Association executive director Seamus O’Keefe said bar owners actually put off the concert to minimize the effects of Regatta Roulette. He said by booking a big act, they try to guarantee that people will come out for revelry, instead of checking the weather forecast.

“It certainly would impact our cover sales to a degree, not significantly. I think we’ve provided a buffer with putting a big name act on the night before,” said O’Keefe, who admitted that he’s played Regatta Roulette in the past. “We think the artist is compelling enough to draw people out, and our pre-sales for Great Big Sea are through the roof.”

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