The Evolution of Regatta Boats

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jul 17, 2018 3:32 PM

Feet strapped in, oars ready, the teams of six rowers plus coxswain wait for the starting gun at the Royal St. John’s Regatta. It’s a scene that, with a few interruptions for war and whatnot, has played out for the past 200 years. For more than half that time, the race has looked remarkably similar to the way it does today, with six-rower teams in long, narrow boats reserved exclusively for Regatta practice, training and racing. 

The boats used today, handmade from wood and coated in fibreglass and epoxy, are based on a design from the early 1900s. But there was a time before that when the boats looked quite different from the modern shells, and even from each other.

At Work & Play

The 19th century was the waning of the golden age of sailing, and shipping was an important part of the St. John’s economy. This was before engines propelled boats - the first transatlantic steamship crossing happened after the first Regatta - so rowing was how sailors got to and from their ships, how they brought in fish, how they caught whales, and how people living in outports travelled their harbours. Rowing was part of daily life for the working sailor. And, like you would, the sailors wanted to know who was the fastest rower. So they raced, using whatever boat they had.

The Regatta grew out of this work-related competition, explains Regatta board of directors president Chris Neary during a recent chat in the Regatta boathouse office. The boats were the working boats of the day - punts, jolly rigs, gigs, whaleboats  and even sailboats.

“They were all working at this day in and day out. Anyone else at the time was like, ‘Who’s the best at it? Let’s go prove it. Let’s go down to the harbour, let’s go to Quidi Vidi Lake, let’s take these boats that we use every single day and let’s see who’s the best, the fastest at doing it,’” says Chris.

From the first official Regatta race of 1818 until the 1840s, they raced these work boats. In those days, the race was as much about the boat and its builder as it was the crew - perhaps even more so. The recorded history of the Regatta, available on the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries (NLPL) website, tells of a rivalry between Halifax and Newfoundland builders. It leaves the impression that building a winning Regatta boat was a matter of Newfoundland national pride as much as it was about winning races. 

In the 1830s, boatbuilder Samuel Loveys was making boats for the Regatta, but they tended to be working boats. Race organizers at the time were ordering boats from Halifax in an attempt to win races. This didn’t sit well with Loveys, who took it upon himself to build a boat that would best the Halifax boats on the waters of Quidi Vidi Lake. (The Regatta started as a St. John’s harbour race, but by this time it had relocated to Quidi Vidi Lake.)

Loveys based his new racing boat on the whaleboat, a double-ended design that generally held a crew of five rowers and a helmsman. Whaleboats were designed to be fast to keep up with whales. He named his boat the Ripple, and it was indeed a quick rower. But by 1843, the Halifax-built Lalla Rookh - a modified whaleboat design - was proving to be the better boat, with the Ripple placing second in every race against the Lalla Rookh that year.

Loveys again took the challenge to his workshop, where he designed a longer, narrower boat intended purely for racing. He called his 36-foot-long craft the Lucy Long. “This changed the style of boats used in our derby day forever,” states the NLPL’s Regatta history. “By the conclusion of the two-day event, Sam Loveys’ Lucy Long emerged as the fastest boat ever seen on the pond. It became the model which both local and Halifax builders tried to emulate thereafter.”

For the next 50 years, the boats would follow Loveys’ design. Then everything changed again, thanks to H.H. Rendell, who borrowed the ideas of English racing boats and, partnering with boat builder Bob Sexton, produced the Glance, a 49-foot boat that ushered in the modern era of racing shells in the Regatta. In 1895, it won 13 out of the 14 races it entered, proving its superior design. 

Further proof of their boatbuilding mastery, the duo next produced the Blue Peter.

The Blue Peter changed everything. Again. It was longer, at 50 feet plus a few inches, and it was faster than any boat yet seen on the lake. In 1901, the Blue Peter was used by the Outer Cove team to set a race record of 9 minutes 13 seconds. For the next 80 years, there was not another boat built, nor another team assembled, that could beat the time. 

Building on History

While the boats of today look the same as those rowed in 1901, the boats’ evolution continued. After Sexton died in the 1940s, the Regatta Committee looked elsewhere for boats. Although they were all of a similar low, long racing shell design, the boats immediately following Sexton’s were slower. The Regatta Committee ordered boats from various builders through the years whenever they needed to restock their fleet. 

In the 1980s, the committee was once again looking to replenish their stock. One of its members, Terry Lindstrom, was a rower at the time and employed by the National Research Council. He was also interested in boats and woodworking. Now retired, Terry vividly recalls those days. 

There was, he recounts over the phone from his current home in Ottawa, a search for someone local to build wooden racing shells, but they couldn’t find anyone. The discussion turned to replicating an existing boat, and they settled on the Blue Peter, believing it to be the best racing shell ever produced. The 1901 boat, it so happened, was hung up in the rafters of the CLB Armoury. Terry brought it to his lab at work, where he built a jig for it and lifted the lines off the boat by hand. (Lifting lines involves carefully measuring an existing boat at various points and recording those numbers in preparation for making plans from which another boat can be built.) 

With a lines plan of the Blue Peter, the Regatta Committee then searched out a capable builder. Hudson Boat Works of London, Ontario, was eventually chosen. The company was already building winning wooden racing shells for Olympic teams. Today, they continue to make some of the world’s best racing shells for Olympic competition. 

Jack Coughlan, head of research and development at Hudson Boat Works, remembers working on the project, saying, “They wanted a boat that would last.” The Blue Peter, he says, was a good shape. The replicas were made in ’91 and ’94, and although they could have built a lighter boat, the Regatta Committee wanted the new boats to be as close to the original Blue Peter as possible in all aspects, including weight. 

Jack hired boat designer and builder Skip Izon, of Shadow River Boats, to oversee the build. The boat, they decided, would be built using thin sheets of wood (veneers) glued together with epoxy and covered in more epoxy and fibreglass fabric. The result looks like plywood, but isn’t. 

Skip, speaking on the phone from his workshop in Ontario, explains how the boats were built. First, he built a mould for the boats using the plans that Terry had drawn up. He remembers being impressed by the boat he saw in the plans. It was unlike boats he had seen before, he says, and the only racing shell he had seen with fixed seats. 

Using that mould, he laid four layers of mahogany veneer, offsetting the grain direction of each layer to maximize the hull’s strength. The shell was then sheathed in 10-ounce fibreglass fabric and epoxy. It’s a bit heavier than necessary, but knowing they had to hit a certain weight, Skip figured it made sense to have all the weight contributing to the strength of the boat. In keeping with the Regatta’s focus on tradition, the finished product was the same length, size and weight as the original.

But there is more than just adherence to tradition at work here - the Blue Peter was, as Skip says, an impressive boat. At 50 feet, and made for a six-person rowing crew, it was a near-perfect match of length to potential speed. 

The top speed of any displacement hull - sailboats, canoes, punts and racing shells, among others - can be calculated with a formula that includes the waterline of the boat. For a given length of boat, there’s an optimum power needed to make it reach its potential top speed, after which the boat’s design begins to work against itself. For the power output of six rowers, 50 feet is about right. “Whoever figured it out got it close,” says Skip, complimenting the skills of Sexton and reinforcing the wisdom of selecting the Blue Peter of all the boats to replicate. 

Once built, the boats were delivered to St. John’s, where Terry put them in the testing tank to compare the results to similar tests done with the original Blue Peter. They were incredibly close, says Terry. 

In testing, where they were towed by a controlled machine in calm water and ideal lab conditions, the replica boats had the same drag as the original Blue Peter, and the committee had verifiable, scientific proof that these boats were similar to each other and the Blue Peter. In theory, each of the boats that Hudson Boat Works built (12 in all) was exactly the same as the original Blue Peter, but there are small differences, given that each boat was made by hand, as opposed to being made by robots and popped out of a mould in a factory.

Out on the water, 20-some years after they were built, each boat has idiosyncrasies that an experienced rower can identify, says Chris Neary, back in the office of the Regatta boathouse. But, practically speaking, these boats are the same as the ones rowed back in the early 1900s. 

From the early work boats to the work of Samuel Loveys to Bob Sexton and H.H. Rendell, to Hudson Boat Works and Skip Izon, Regatta boats evolved to become, first, the ideal shape for racing; then the ideal length for six rowers; and, finally, an evolution in materials that made a classic design into something durable. The result is a combination that allows that original record of 9:13, set in the original Blue Peter, to still mean something today. 

“In theory,” says Chris, “you’re rowing in a boat very similar to what your grandfather rowed in or what that 1901 team did. Even today, if a team comes down and breaks that 9:13, it’s still significant because it’s such a milestone. Even 100 years later, it’s still a note of pride and accomplishment to break the 9:13.”

-by Tobias Romaniuk