The River Race that Doesn’t Like Water

Alice Springs is a town in Australia’s Northern Territory, close to the nation’s center. (Here’s a map.) With about 25,000 people who call it home, the town is hardly a metropolis, but that seemingly low population can be misleading — about 10% of the people who live in the Northern Territory live there. It’s not the easiest place to live, climate-wise, because, despite the name, Alice Springs doesn’t have a lot of water. It gets a reasonable amount of rain during the winter months but that water tends to evaporate quickly, making the area a desert. And while the Todd River runs through the middle of the town (here’s a zoomed-in map), that’s misleading — the Todd River is, almost always, a dry river bed, as Google Earth’s Satellite View makes clear

That means the river isn’t a great source for municipal water. But on the bright side, the Todd River has become the perfect place for one of the world’s most ridiculous river races — usually.

On the third Saturday of August each year — that’s August 19th of this year, if you’re in the neighborhood — competitors and spectators come from around the area, and really, around the world, to witness the Henley-on-Todd Regatta. Because there’s no water in the river, the “boats” that are used in the regatta do not need to be much, and they certainly do not need to be seaworthy. In fact, there aren’t a lot of requirements, at all, to participate in the race. Some show up in floatation rings like the ones you’d expect a young child to use in a pool, as seen here. But most decide to participate in a team; as seen below (via Wikipedia), they come in things that look like boats — if driven by Fred Flinstone.

The race got its start in 1962 as a fundraiser for the local Rotary Club, and its name comes from an actual regatta that takes place in England each year. In the sixty-plus years since its founding, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta has only failed to take place a few times. The race was cancelled for two years due to COVID-19 and also had to be skipped in 1993. The reason was, perhaps, the most ironic one possible: as ABC News Australia reported, “unseasonal rain meant there was water in the Todd River.” And you can’t use a fake boat in a real river.

But in normal years, the river is dry — well, except during the event’s grand finale. That’s when the big boats come out — boats with a dozen or more “sailors” operating three-story “ships” sponsored by businesses and other organizations. The teams, dubbed Pirates, Vikings, and the Navy — “blast each other with water cannons and brightly colored flour mortars,” in the words of the Washington Post in an interactive slideshow. (Click through to see it; it’s great.) In the 2022 regatta battle, the Vikings were “dressed in faux animals skins and horned helmets,” which wasn’t really all that useful against the Pirates and their “1,000 liters of water, 48 ‘cannons,’ and a crow’s nest for launching water balloons.” The Navy and “its crew was competing on a military-sponsored truck with several times as much water.” The Vikings’ ship quickly collapsed under a heavy torrent, particularly from the Navy, but the Pirates pulled out a victory in the end.

Bonus fact: The Henley-on-Todd isn’t the Northern Territory’s only ridiculous regatta. Each year, the territory’s capital, Darwin, hosts the Darwin Beer Can Regatta. Unlike the Henley-on-Todd, the race actually does take place on water, as Darwin borders the ocean. But like the Henley, the boats don’t necessarily need to be seaworthy. As Wikipedia’s editors summarize, “Participants create boats using empty beer cans, soft drink (soda) cans, soft drink bottles, and milk cartons. Up to 30,000 cans have been used for a single boat. The vessels are not tested for seaworthiness, prior to water events, and those that fall apart are part of the day’s entertainment.”

From the Archives: The Great Pumpkin Float: Another river race. This one has water — but boats? Not so much.