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DEREK MONTAGUE: The Labrador Canoe Regatta is worth reviving

Derek Montague
Derek Montague - Contributed
HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, N.L. —

For years now, many people, including myself, have been pining for a return of what the Labrador Canoe Regatta used to be.

Anyone who grew up in the 80’s or 90’s or even later, remembers the crowded beach along Gosling Lake as people watched heat after heat of intense canoe races.

There would also be games, music, and lines of concession stands.

This year’s regatta had only three men’s teams and three women’s teams registered.

Once upon a time this would have been unimaginable, but the decline has been happening for few years.

When I competed in the regatta for the first and only time in 2007, we were one of only three men’s teams.

Let me say how grateful we should all be that the Regatta committee has kept this going for so long. The lack of interest is certainly not their fault.

They work hard with few volunteers every summer to maintain this tradition.

And I’m sure it must often feel like a thankless job, especially when they see social media comments criticizing the event.

In its prime years, the regatta had dozens of men’s and women’s teams, and even had competitive junior and juvenile divisions for kid racers.

There was such a rich history at the regatta that heated rivalries developed, and people loved to see certain teams go head to head because of how close they were in skill and spirit (anyone remember River Rats vs Paint Shop?).

Two things made the Regatta so special.

First, unlike most regattas where the teams must row to the finish in a straight line, these six-person teams had to paddle their canoes and circle a series of buoys.

This meant teams had to have someone reliable in the back to stir the canoe sharply (much easier said than done).  It also meant, especially in a full heat, that teams could easily bang into each other.

This helped lead to the rivalries. It seemed like at least once a year there would be an official protest about whether a team intentionally bumped another.

Secondly, people took the regatta very very seriously.

Teams that wanted to win started practicing as soon as the water was free of ice. Because the teams took it seriously, spectators, friends, and family members took it seriously too.
I remember, as a kid, watching North West River’s teams paddling in the 90’s, and the anticipation of waiting for the starting gun to fire.

It was an exciting event for many reasons. 

It was a chance for North West River to compete against Happy Valley-Goose Bay (population 8000 or so) and expect to win.

There was a community canoe that all teams could practice with whenever they wanted. This gave the North West River teams an advantage over any teams in Happy Valley-Goose Bay who had to drive down to Gosling Lake and only practice within certain hours.

One of the most common sounds during the summer in the 90’s was Regatta legend and coach John Goudie shouting from his speedboat at six young kids to paddle harder. His voice seemed to travel throughout the entire town.

My interest in the regatta peaked when I was very young, around 1994, when the ‘River Runts’ began competing in the Juvenile division, the youngest division in the Regatta.
This team from North West River consisted of 10-12-year olds paddling for the first time.

The whole town, especially the parents, were thrilled to watch this new team representing the community. By this point, the original River Rats from the 80’s had retired. I will always remember the reaction of coach Goudie excitedly greeting the boys crossing the finish line after they came in second out of the three teams.

Because of their age, no one really expected them to finish as well as they did. Then there was quite an excited get together in a tent after the race with parents and other community members bringing in food and congratulating the team on their finish.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Labradorians who have similar stories of either participating or competing in the regatta.

Around the mid-2000’s the regatta began to see a decline. The reasons are probably varied, but two big factors come to mind.

By that time the base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay was much different. There were fewer foreign troops stationed here, which meant the days of troops from Germany and Britain competing in the race were gone.

Also many people were working in Voisey’s Bay or doing other forms of shift work. It’s easy to register a team when everyone works 9-5 and have the weekends off. It’s very hard to do so when people have such differing schedules.

The decline continued, of course, when people began working at Muskrat Falls in 2012.

But I believe these problems and others can be overcome.

Look at the Lab Cup, Labrador’s yearly soccer tournament, and the great number of teams that still compete in that.

For the 2020 regatta, everyone who misses how the event used to be should either make a team or encourage others to do the same.

Better yet, join the committee or volunteer.

It’s not hard to compete for the first time. Anyone can paddle a canoe, especially if you practice all summer.

Adults in central Labrador should also be encouraging kids to get involved. A strong junior division will create the groundwork for future regattas.

Everyone I know seems to have fond memories of past regattas when there were many teams and it seemed everyone went to Gosling Lake the first weekend of August. The good news is Labradorians can bring back that level of competition and participation.

Like all other community events, it will just take people agreeing to get involved.

derek.montague@thelabradorian.ca

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