How to start a regatta on your lake

potato sack race

Regattas are traditionally defined as boat races, but for most cottagers, they might include any type of race you can imagine, including canoe, kayak, paddleboat, swimming and running. Usually there’s a horseshoe tournament and children’s activities like face painting too. Other popular features include BBQs, raffles and beer gardens.

Hosting the annual regatta is a joy, says Alex Forani, Chair of the Chandos Lake Regatta Committee. “To see the kids’ faces when they put on their medals—they’re so excited.” The memories can last a lifetime as well. Forani still has every medal she’s won at the Chandos Lake regatta since childhood.

Mike Gibbs, Membership and Program Coordinator for the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA), couldn’t agree more. “Regattas are a great way to involve association members in a single event,” he says.

Don’t know where to begin? The organizers of the Chandos and Kennisis Lake regattas shared their expertise to help get you started.

First Things First

First, you need a waterfront location to host your regatta. Your options might include a public beach or a local marina, which can be rented or donated for the day. If you want to use a public space, contact your municipality to find out if it’s possible, and what permits (for example, a permit to serve food) or rental fees are required. Whatever space you choose, you’ll need plenty of parking and access to washrooms.

Choose a weekend in July or August, when the most people are available to join in the fun and the weather is (usually!) its warmest. Start with a one-day event, like the Kennisis Lake regatta, which divides the day between morning swimming events and afternoon boat races.

The Chandos Lake Regatta has been an annual event for more than 50 years, running from noon to 4:00p.m. “We work hard to keep the regatta within our four-hour time frame,” explains Forani. “It’s a comfortable length of time that works for everyone from our youngest to our oldest participants.”

Fun and Games

Most regattas include some competitive sport such as a distance swim race, but there are lots of games and races anyone can win, regardless of athletic ability.

Include some creative variations to keep everyone laughing. Few can resist canoe races with pie plates instead of paddles, like they have at the Kennisis Lake Annual Regatta. Then there’s the five-man canoe race with only hands as paddles that’s the final event at the Chandos Lake regatta each year. “It’s so popular, we have to run it in heats,” says Forani.

When planning your events, aim for a mixture of activities that appeal to all ages and abilities. Divide the races into age groups to keep the competition fair. According to Forani, running and swimming races are the easiest to plan and execute—the only requirements are a starting and finish line, and cottagers don’t need to remember any equipment.

Events for kids can include easy-to-organize games like the shoe fling, water-balloon or egg toss, or potato-sack races. If medals for competitions are out of your budget, a first-place ribbon is still a badge of honour for any child.

The Cost of Fun

One of the tricks to hosting a successful regatta is balancing your costs and revenue. Food and drinks will be one of your largest expenses, along with prizes. Trophies or medals provide a bit more incentive to win and can be an important part of the fun. If you need to keep your costs down, you could ask local businesses or families to sponsor individual events and pay the cost of the prizes.

You can offset most of the expense of hamburgers and hotdogs by selling them, although you may want to subsidize the cost in a similar way to the prizing to keep prices low for participants. If you want to include alcohol on your menu, you’ll need a special occasion permit from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which can be obtained at select LCBO stores. You can find great advice on special occasion permits, safe food handling, and liability in the FOCA risk management guide, available on the FOCA website.

Liability and proper insurance are an extremely important part of a successful regatta. It may be as simple as having participants sign a legal waiver and having a lifeguard on site, but you must work out the details in advance and consult your lawyer to ensure your association is covered.

Getting the Word Out

Now that you’ve got a date and a plan for your first annual regatta, how do you let people know? Post flyers a few months ahead at all of your lake’s marinas, as well as on public notice boards at grocery stores and community buildings. If your cottage association has a newsletter, be sure to include a regatta write-up in each issue.

For out-of-towners and cottagers who haven’t made it up to the lake yet, social media sites like Facebook or an email newsletter, can be especially great for sharing news, as well as photos after the event. Start by building a Facebook page for your lake association. Then remind people to join it in your association’s newsletters and at events. To start an email mailing list, services like MailChimp can help you get started with creating an email database and sending messages to your list. Many mailing list services are free if your mailing list is less than a few thousand subscribers.

Using your Volunteers

Most regattas can be planned by a committee of only a few people. Come regatta day, you’ll need a lot more helping hands—aim for two to three volunteers to run each event. The first regatta you plan will be the most labour intensive, since you are starting from scratch. Once you have a schedule that works, you simply build on that success each year.