Crews row six-member, coxswained, fixed-seat racing shells that are as identical as possible and are the property of the Royal St. John's Regatta Committee. Men's crews row a 2.450 km course , women's crews row a 1.225 km course , and all crews are required to turn buoys and return to the start-finish line.
A growing number of people, local and foreign, visit Quidi Vidi Lake each year for the event, averaging around 50,000 in recent years. Aside from the rowing competitions, the Royal St. John's Regatta is well-known for its lakeside entertainment. The Regatta host hundreds of booths operated by individuals and organizations, ranging from various games of chance to food and drink.
Many local historians believe that rowing and sailing competitions between the crews from various ships in the harbour and the local populace pre-date any of the records we have been able to verify. St. John's, with its magnificently sheltered harbour, had become a growing centre of activity, and early settlement, as far back as early 1700s. The fishing and trading season generally lasted from May to September. This gave the transient and local population only a few months to form summer friendships and raise a challenge to each other's sailing and rowing skills. The boat racing, which later became the Regatta, came into existence as a natural form of friendly competition among a seafaring people.
The rivalry amongst the crews of the various ships in the harbour sparked both sailing and rowing challenges. Brief early records give reference to the use of "gigs", "jolly-boats", and "whale" boats which were used in early competition. A "gig" is defined as: a light, narrow clinker-built ships boat, adapted either for rowing or sailing. Little else is known of a "gig"'s dimensions or use. All boats used during this early period were owned by the companies which owned the ship or in some cases by individuals.
The very earliest verifiable mention of a rowing competition dates back to 12 August 1816: In its early days the boat races were held over a space of three days, and old-fashioned gigs and yawls and long boats were manned by brawny sailors and fishermen who won monetary rewards and fleeting fame and the plaudits of a merry crowd of holiday makers.
During the first 30 to 40 years of Regatta history the races often took one, two, even three days to complete. Some challenges were for sailing while others were for racing. Crews and boats had to be classified or matched so that all challenges could be met. Sailing matches were initially held in the Harbour with rowing matches reserved for Quidi Vidi. Eventually all races moved to Quidi Vidi, perhaps to avoid interfering with a busy port's activity and possibly to accommodate the growing crowds of spectators so eager to watch the festivities.
1816: Long before Newfoundland was granted a Representative Government there was Regatta in St. John's. The Royal Gazette in its issue of 6 August 1816 records the arrival in the port of St. John's of:
In the same issue of the Royal Gazette there is a report on a rowing match (which) will take place on Monday next between two boats upon which considerable bets are depending. They are to start at half past one o'clock from alongside the prison ship. The prison ship was moored in the harbour and there are references to boat races being held on the harbour in these early years.
1818: Throughout the history of Newfoundland the ardent loyalty of Newfoundlanders to the King/Queen and Country remains a proud facet to their character. The evolution of the Regatta also shares very strong links to the major events which surround the Monarchy. The races of 1818 were held on September 22 in order to coincide with the 47th anniversary of King George III's official coronation on September 22,1761.
1826: marks the first recorded reference to an official organizing committee called The Amateurs of Boat Racing. Prior to this date the Regatta's were organized on an ad hoc basis with few specific rules or regulations. The media accounts refer to the Regatta as The St. John's Annual Regatta, establishing its past, and with its new organization, its future. It is from this date that the Regatta Committee takes its anniversary.
Having very close ties to the monarchy has been a source of great pride for those involved with the regatta. The regatta has been visited by members of the Royal Family, including Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward) in 1860 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1978. It has been cancelled due to the death of any monarch, and any year a coronation has taken place or a milestone jubilee celebrated, the regatta has been held in honour of the monarch. Its royal designation was incorporated in 1993, which prompted changes in the event and the development of a new crest.