Drinking the Regatta Kool-Aid

And asking ‘What makes the Regatta experience?’ ... and can I do it for $50?

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on August 7, 2014
Telegram scribe Josh Pennell was one lucky gambler at the Regatta on Wednesday. He picked up $100 on the cash wheel, a Simpson’s inflatible bat and a bug-eyed stuffed frog for his efforts. According to reports, the loot was all ill-gotten. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Of all the things that can be said about the Royal St. John’s Regatta, it’s probably the uniqueness of the event that never fails to astound me.

It might be the only holiday in the world that’s contingent on the weather. That creates a real gamble to the holiday that blows the game of Ship and Anchor clear out of the water.

There’s a lot more resting on the day if people take a run at Regatta Roulette and lose out, dragging heavy heads to work on a day they were so sure they were going to have off.

Further to that, the Regatta go ahead is given if weather conditions are suitable for the races to take place. While this makes sense, considering the historic races that started all those years ago in St. John’s harbour are the reason for the Regatta, the vast majority of people who go there are almost oblivious that races are even taking place mere metres from them.

It’s the sea of spinning wheels, inflatable and stuffed creatures coloured every shade of the 1960s, and the neverending line of food vendors that grab their interest. As people will tell you, it’s only the people rowing and a few of their proud relatives that take heed of the races.

Then of course there’s the public’s opinion of the event. It’s immensely popular, bringing tens of thousands of people to the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake every year.

But it’s also the event people love to hate.

Between accusations that the games are rigged, that the food is monstrously over priced and that the very act of going will make one forevermore refer to the event as “The Regretta,” there’s a divide out there about the Regatta. It runs as deep as the opinion of whether the lake’s best time of 8:51:32 will ever be cracked.

That got us at The Telegram asking, “What is the true Regatta experience and how much does it cost?”

So armed with $50, I took to the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake late Wednesday morning with that question doing laps through my mind. For the record, I didn’t play Regatta Roulette the night before, so was otherwise of sound mind.

I’m barely lakeside when I see two young sisters — Erin and Beth Power — each with an impressive stuffed bear. I ask them how they won them and what I need to do to really get the most out of my Regatta Day.

Erin says it’s all about the spin draws and getting some food. Especially a snow cone. So I go to the nearest wheel that’s giving away prizes and lay my money down. Gone. I roll again. Gone. I tell myself I’ll do better at games that require more skill to win and rely less on mere chance. Perhaps if the historic game of catching the greased pig was still around I’d be a shoo-in.

There are no snow cones in sight. I’ve read historically there were crubeens available or boiled pig feet. Since I can’t spot any of those around either (and as I wonder why pigs got the brunt of the mistreatment on Regatta days of yore), I settle for a plate of Ziggy Peelgood fries and I’m off, probably feeling slightly lighter than I would after a scoff of boiled pig feet.

Out of the corner of my eye I see green objects pirouetting through the air. It’s a game where you get two rubber frogs for five bucks. They sit on a kind of a catapult that you hit with a hammer.

Inside the tent there’s a pond set up with metal lilly pad flowers, the goal being to get your frog in them. I give my catapult a good crack and watch my near legless rubber frog go arse over kettle and splash into the water nowhere near a lilly pad flower.

The same thing happens to my second frog and I’m starting to wonder about these rigged games when a young fella working there hands me a small stuffed frog with exploding eyeballs. Everyone’s a winner here.

Next to me are two kids with their father playing the game, too. His name is Tony Cooney and his kids are Dale, 8, and Anna, 10. He tells me they come every year.

“When Anna was one year old, we started coming down to the Regatta and every year we go to the exact same horse at the pony ride,” Cooney says.

“We took a picture on the exact same horse every year. We look at those as the years go by and we actually see the difference.”

 I leave that game with my courtesy frog and a vision in my head of those pics Tony was telling me about. So far that story has by far been the best thing I’ve won yet today.

Next I spot a game where you have to throw rolls of toilet paper through toilet seats. A long-haired bearded young man steps up and goes three for three with the wad toss like he’s been practising all year. I go after him. The first two rolls I’m SOL, but the third sails through without even touching the lip. I made a bigger splash there than I did with the frogs.

So I suddenly find myself up one inflatable Bart Simpson bat. It’s a nice addition to the frog I won for not getting any of his rubber friends in the metal lilly pads.

I stop and ask a few more people what I need to do with the remainder of my $50 and I’m told over and over that food and beer is the way to go.

I imagine the $50 wouldn’t last long in the beer tent. I also figure that’s not exactly where The Telegram wanted me to go when they sent me down here. So a beverage will have to wait.

I’m seeing dollar signs as a money wheel spins round and round. I run into a relative of mine there — my aunt, Kelly Gibson. She comes down from Vancouver for the Regatta pretty much every year.

Her daughter, Olivia, has been coming in recent years, too, and the Regatta is becoming an annual tradition for her, regardless of the entire country that normally separates them from Quidi Vidi Lake.

My aunt tells me it isn’t one thing that makes the Regatta experience. It’s how all of it comes together to make a great atmosphere.

While I’m being told this she suddenly starts to jump up and down. She’s won $100 on the cash wheel. In the next hour or so, her daughter and my other cousin also win $100 each on different cash wheels.

I’m hitching my wagon to their star for awhile. Boom. A short time later it pays off —  $100 comes my way after I lay down a $5 bill on a cash wheel. Not to put down the bat and frog, but this is more the kind of Regatta winnings I can get behind.

So with my stomach racked with hunger, I scan quickly again for the crubeen truck, but head to a curry tent when I can’t find it. There are several multicultural foods at the Regatta these days and while I’m partial to fries or toutons or barbecued meats, I take in a feast of curry for $10.

My original $50 is just about gone and I’m pretty well spent anyway. Do I have an answer for what the true Regatta experience is and how much it costs?

Not exactly. The Regatta experience is no doubt different for everybody. Some people go strictly for the races. Others for anything but.

Surely there’s a few who only see the inside of the beer tent. But they’re all going. What I can tell you is that there’s a lot to experience there and it won’t cost much.

Something to keep in mind is that while all this goes on along the perimeter, in the middle of the lake there’s the real reason the Regatta started in the first place.

At the end of that pond you’ll see it all: people nearly falling out of their rowing shell with celebration; people crying in disbelief either from victory or loss; people nearly sick with exhaustion.

That’s worth a stroll up the pond by itself.