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San Fernando Regatta

Published: 
Saturday, July 29, 2017
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History teaches us not only the resilience of our ancestors but their economic vision and their economic symbiosis with our countries’ natural resources. The early San Fernandians saw the potential of their port and its possibilities as a marina and an attractive resource for wealthy yachties. This was de-ministered in two world wars but once more appears as a facet for diversification.

—Rudolph Bissessarsingh Published: December 29, 2013 

For nearly a century, the premiere event on San Fernando’s social calendar was the New Year’s Day Regatta at King’s Wharf. The elites and the hoi polloi mingled freely, enjoying watersports, athletics and music in a spirit of genial bonhomie and with none of the class segregation characteristic of the colonial period and the present in Port-of-Spain.

The regatta was instituted on January 1, 1870, by Gustave Dieffenthaller, who owned the largest pharmacy in the town, the Naparima Dispensary. Gustave was an enthusiastic sailor and at his call, boats of all descriptions, from as far away as La Brea and Oropouche, competed in the lists—which involved a speedy tack under oar and sail from the steamship jetty on the wharf to Farallon Rock, which stood out in the Gulf of Paria, almost two miles away. The rock was the turning point for the competitors to return and be judged. Not surprisingly, Dieffenthaller and his sleek barque, Enterprise, won the day and the team did so for another two years.

The races were not the only feature of the regatta. Patrons were regaled with the sonorous talents of the Naparima Harmonic Society, which was founded by the Vilain family—a prominent coloured clan whose musical talents were known throughout the colony. The following year, the meet was expanded to include athletic competitions on the strip of land now occupied by the PTSC terminus. In 1872 Gustave Dieffenthaller died suddenly at 36 years of age, but the regatta persevered under the management of a group of merchants and planters called the Stewards of the San Fernando Regatta. In 1878 a purse was offered as a prize in addition to the signature silver cup. By the 1880s, the regatta had become something of a national phenomenon and even attracted the attention of crowds from Port-of-Spain. The Gulf Steamer which plied between the two towns even operated a special sailing to accommodate the northern spectators. The steamer also carried dignitaries such as Sir C C Knollys, the colonial administrator, who became a steward in 1887. Knollys was an avid sportsman and was a fixture of the regatta for several years. Another governor who participated fully in the happenings of the day was Sir Alfred Maloney, who even rolled up his sleeves in 1902 and competed as an honorary sailor.

A decade before this, however, the regatta lost some of its character with the death of Elvira Glassen. She was a Grenadian by birth and a woman of means who had fallen on hard times. She ran a boarding house and dining room at No 1 High Street called the Royal Hotel (no relation to the present-day San Fernando establishment of that name). Elvira would turn out at every regatta, including the inaugural meet in 1870, with a stall that sold the most delicious beef pies, mauby and lemonade to patrons and spectators alike. The more upper-crust folks would repair to her hotel’s restaurant at the close of the day for a lavish dinner, dancing and cocktails and this had become very much a fixture of the day. In 1904 tragedy struck the regatta in a sudden and gruesome way. As was customary, a cannon on shore was fired to signal the start of the races. On January 1, 1904, the hapless Charles M Pasea (a steward of the regatta) was standing in the firing line. His head was blown off his shoulders and far out to sea. As a result, no regattas were held until 1907. His grave-marker at Paradise Cemetery was paid for by his fellow stewards, which is commemorated on the back of the headstone thus: “Erected by the Stewards of the San Fernando Regatta and other friends. A man greatly beloved.”

The regatta was suspended temporarily from 1914-17 during World War I but resumed in the last war year (1918). In 1920 Mayor Clarence Hamilton Gopaul was named the first Indo-Trinidadian Honorary Steward. A year later, well known San Fernando shipwright George Martin bested the competition in a steam-powered launch belonging to Thomas Geddes Grant, the first powered vessel to enter the races. The year 1932 was a year of tragedy, since two competing boats collided and one of the competitors drowned before help arrived. World War II proved to be another interruption in the festivity; the resumption of the regatta in 1946 under Mayor Victor C Ramsaran seemed to have lost some of the spirit of years gone by. Regattas were held sporadically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but less than 100 years after its foundation, the historic event was no more.

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