Racing Canoe and Regattas
Ron Riddell

We all can remember those dog days of summer, when rowing and canoe clubs, children’s camps, town folk and cottagers took part in rowing, canoeing and sailing regattas. Just maybe they will come back.canoes001canoes 002

First we have to understand the origin of canoeing regattas. Canoe racing actually is as old as the canoe itself. The voyageurs did it to be the first to the portage, to gain the best take out spot, or to take a break from paddling 16 hours at 40 to 60 strokes a minute. In the late 18th century rival voyageur brigades would race the length of Lake Winnipeg. It would be a marathon lasting 48 hours.
The natives also were racing canoes. Painter George Catlin records around 1840 the Ojibwas racing canoes in the upper Mississippi Country on the St. Mary River. The spectators wagered heavily on the outcome.

The Mi’Kmaqs in their Birch Bark canoes dominated all the regattas in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia during the 1830s, and in 1826 the first recorded regatta took place in Halifax Harbour. This was a lackluster affair of slow moving cutters from the British ships anchored in the harbour.

Sporting rivalry among canoe builders and users led to racing competition. A regatta was staged in neighbouring Victoria County, Ontario, as early as 1839, and the first regatta for canoes took place on Rice Lake in 1846. In 1854 Robert and George Strickland transformed the dugout canoe into racing machines with names like Shooting Star, Belle of Peterborough, and Flying Cloud. These canoes became identified with the “Canadian Open Canoe” of to-day.

On September 1, 1860 the first Lumberman’s Regatta took place at Victoria Island, Ottawa River, when 150 Birch Bark Canoes manned by brilliantly costumed lumberman paddled a mile course, for prize money, while thousands of spectators lined the shore.

In the summer of 1880 a meeting of canoeists at Lake George N.Y., led to the formation of the American Canoe Association (ACA). In 1886 ACA introduced the first Paddling Trophy Race, held on Lake George, NY, called camps, as the spectators and contestants actually camped out in large walled tents. Mr. Johnston, a Canadian in a Canadian canoe, lost to Mr. Rice of Springfield, NY. In the following years the Canadians dominated the ACA regattas in canoes built by William English Co. and Toronto Canoe Co.
In 1891 the (ACA) Paddling Trophy race was won by R. H. Muntz from the Toronto area, who was reared in the Muskoka Lakes Region.

There were a number of different paddling positions allowed, including sitting, using a double blade paddle; half canoes003kneeling using a single blade; and standing using a 10’ single blade paddle. When Fritz Johnston, a Canadian, stood to paddle, he laced on his boots, which were screwed to the floor of the canoe.

In 1882 the first “War Canoe” race was held at Lachine, Quebec. These open canoes came in different lengths - 20’, 30’, and 35’. Originally they were built by the Ontario Canoe Company as freight canoes to be used for exploration and surveying. A lighter version was built for the Toronto Canoe Club and was facetiously referred to as a “War Canoe”.

In 1899 ACA held their first War Canoe races at Hay Island, St Lawrence River; all the canoes were Canadian. Also that summer, the Britannia Club of Ottawa promoted a War Canoe league that became the Canadian Canoe Association (CCA).

In 1900 the ACA was looking for support from Canadians to hold an ACA camp which included “War Canoe” races at Muskoka Lake, which did not materialize. Also that year CCA held their first Canadian Championship at Brockville.

Toronto Canoe Club dominated the national championships from 1907 to 1913. Alister MacKenize, who came from the Muskoka region, became a dominate paddler. He developed his paddling skills on the cottage circuit around Gravenhurst, Ontario.

The Golden Years of Canadian canoe sport happened from 1919 to 1939 when membership and spectator popularity expanded.

Regattas became social events and Club uniforms became an important part of the event. For example The Peterborough Canoe Club members wore navy blue suits and straw hats, and the Knickerbocker Club of New York City wore blue shirts, grey knee breeches, and stockings.canoes004

In 1924 at the Paris Olympics, canoe racing became a demonstration sport with a Canadian participation.

In 1955 one of the most unusual canoe competitions in the world was held during the Winter Carnival at Quebec City. Teams raced their canoes across the ice flows and open water of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City to Levis.

A North America phenomenon is the marathon canoe race. These included “Citizens’ Races” which were non-sanctioned, against the clock, 3 to 5 miles in length, with easy portages, and “The Marathon” were sanctioned 5 to 300 mile races, over a natural watercourse with two- or three-day portages - cash prizes were offered in many events. At first pleasure type canoes where used, later the canoe was modified for speed and ease of portaging.

The bright uniforms and the large war canoes lent excitement to the regattas, which became important summer social events.

The Canoe, A living Tradition, John Jennings
The Canoe, Kenneth G. Roberts & Philip Shackleton
The Canoe, Jim Poling, Sr.
P.S. Visit the racing canoe display at Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre in collaboration with the Canadian Canoe Museum.