Nfld. & Labrador

In historic first, women's rowing teams take on regatta long course

For the first time ever this weekend, two women’s crews raced the long course on Quidi Vidi Lake, an option formerly reserved for men.

Veteran team Verso and predominantly teenage team RBC-Dominion Securities shatter a 203-year barrier

Seven women sit in a boat next to the dock on Quidi Vidi Lake, clutching their oars.
Studio Verso rowed themselves into the history books as the first women's team in over two centuries to win the long course, racing the entire length of Quidi Vidi Lake. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Even after two centuries, there's still room for the Royal St. John's Regatta to make history.

For the first time ever, two women's crews this weekend raced the long course on Quidi Vidi Lake, a competition formerly reserved for men.

Until now, women have been directed to a short course of 1,225 metres, half of the 2,450-metre length of the full course. 

The St. John's rowing season officially kicked off Saturday with the Come Home Year Race Day, an opportunity for rowers to test themselves against the lake, before the main event at the regatta itself in August.

Twelve races were scheduled for the day, but all eyes were on Race 5. 

'Let's make history!'

Women have been advocating for the change for decades. One of them, longtime rower Connie Duffett, rowed Saturday with the Studio Verso team. 

"It was absolutely amazing," said Duffett, adding she and others have been fighting for the option for 20 years. 

Now in her 25th year rowing, Duffett became one of the first to row the entire course.

"As we were passing to the ladies' kegs, our coxswain called out, 'Let's make history!' And then we pushed right through those kegs and went right to the bottom of the pond," Duffett said. 

A woman in a cap and 'Studio Verso' tank top smiles on a hot day at Quidi Vidi Lake. She is wearing a small medal on a necklace that reads 'Regatta 1936'.
Connie Duffett has been rowing for 25 years. For a historic long course race, she wore her grandfather's 1936 regatta medal. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Studio Verso won the race with a time of 11:26:47. The crew in the other shell was RBC-Dominion Securities, a new team made up of young athletes, many still in their teens.

"It's just really exciting," said Kate Kelly, 18, who has been rowing for five years.

"I remember hearing about the first women's crew to ever row and I thought that was so cool. So I am so happy to be part of the first crew to do the full course," said Kelly. 

She said taking on the long course for the first time in competition was easier than she thought it would be.

"I thought it was going to be really hard, but it was not bad, as I actually liked it more than the shorter course," Kelly said. 

A teen girl with braided hair smiles on the dock at Quidi Vidi Lake on a hot summer day.
Kate Kelly, 18, who has been rowing for five years, says rowing the full length of the pond was a lot easier than she had expected. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Royal St. John's Regatta committee president Noelle Thomas-Kennell said it was an amazing day.

"It just allows choice between long course and short course but it's historic for women to race this long course, which generally had been reserved for men," Thomas-Kennell said. 

'Pop would be so proud of you'

The changes were officially announced in April. Rather than dividing the races by gender, any team can compete in either race based entirely on their preference.

The change is an attempt to grow the sport, and have more male teams as well, appealing to rowers who might prefer the shorter, faster race.

An animated gif showing one row of athletes standing, while a second row kneels in front of them. The camera pans from right to left.
The Studio Verso, standing, and RBC-Dominion teams gathered after making history as the first women's teams to row the long course on Quidi Vidi Lake. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Duffett said it was an emotional race, with the entire regatta committee clapping and more than a few tears all around. 

"It's something that's steeped in tradition for us, and it's something that … continues to evolve. When my grandfather rowed, rather than six seats in a boat, there was only four," Duffett said. 

"There's lots of things that they're continuing to evolve and so it's a great family history for us. And now I'm rowing and my children are rowing as well."

Duffett rowed the historic race wearing a 1936 regatta medal that her grandfather won.

"As I was walking out the door this morning, my mom said, 'My gosh, Pop would be so proud of you to be able to row the long course like he did,'" she said. 

The 204th running of the regatta is scheduled for Aug. 3. 

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