Row Ontario Retrospective: The History of Umpiring
History/ Oct 21

Row Ontario Retrospective: The History of Umpiring

In honour of our 50th anniversary we are putting together a seven-part retrospective series on the history of Row Ontario and the Ontario rowing community. This series is a celebration of all the volunteers, coaches, umpires, athletes, parents, regatta organizers and many more who have worked so hard over the years to build the sport of rowing in our province.

This is Part III of the retrospective series, ‘The History of Umpiring’.

Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary.

Umpires have been an integral part of rowing since the beginning of the sport. They have always been there to enforce the rules, start the races, determine the order of finish, manage crews (on and off the water), communicate with athletes and coaches, and solve problems. Most importantly, umpires allow rowers to compete under safe and fair conditions and uphold the integrity of the regatta.

In Canada, umpires have always been certified through the national federation, whether it went by the Canadian Amateur Association of Oarsmen (CAAO), the Canadian Amateur Rowing Association (CARA) or the current Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA) moniker. A certification system running through the national federation is common throughout the world. State or provincial umpiring associations are few and far between, as the vast majority of nations prefer that the continuity of certification and rules be the same throughout the country.

While being certified through the national federation has always remained the same, one thing that has changed over the years is the term ‘umpire’. From the beginning of the CAAO in 1880, the term ‘referee’ was the most common term used to describe them. ‘Official’ has also been used over the years as more of a generic reference. It was only in the last 30 years that the term ‘umpire’ began to be used exclusively. The change in title was a result of Canada adopting the name used by FISA for their officials, to avoid confusion on the umpire pathway to become a FISA-licensed umpire.

When the Ontario Rowing Association (ORA) was formed in 1970, there were approximately 50 active umpires in the province. They were spread out around the Ontario clubs, with the most residing in the Niagara region where the largest concentration of regattas were held. The small, tight knit umpiring community would typically umpire at the same events each year, making them familiar faces to the athletes and coaches who consistently attended the events.

“Umpire licensing was still the way it is today, in that you were licensed through the national governing body, not the province,” said Wes Kuran, the Ontario Rowing Association’s second President and an umpire for over 40 years. “It was a half-day course; you were given a rule book to read and then there was an exam at the end of the day. If you passed, you were a licensed umpire. It took a long time to develop the education process to what it is today. There wasn’t a lot of interest in those days, most of the umpires were retired oarsmen who wanted to stay involved in the sport.”

As rowing in Ontario began to grow and evolve, the umpiring program grew and evolved along with it. After ten years in operation, the ORA was typically only hosting one umpire clinic per year and were budgeting $3,000, or 10% of their overall budget, towards hosting umpire clinics, producing manuals and covering travel costs to the Ontario Rowing Championships. In comparison, $7,000 was being budgeted at the time for coach’s clinics and six clinics were being run per year.

However, as more regattas were held in the province, more licensed umpires were needed to run them. Throughout the 1980s the ORA made a concerted effort to increase umpire education opportunities and establish more licensed umpires in different regions of the province. By 1988, there were 69 licensed umpires in Ontario, with 37 in the Niagara region and the remaining 32 coming from other areas of the province. A national umpiring committee had been existence for many years, and informal committees consisting of strictly Ontario umpires had also been in operation, but until this point the ORA had not established a formal umpiring committee. In 1988, Kuran put forth a proposal to the ORA Board of Directors to form the first ‘Ontario Referee’s Committee’ to further the umpiring program in Ontario.

The committee was recommended to comprise a Chairperson and have representatives from each of Ontario’s five regions (Central, Eastern, Niagara, Northwest, and Western) as its members. Initially, the committee would have six main areas of focus; establishing a regional structure where one individual would become the head of each region, establishing one instructor per region, training six new umpires per region per year, running refresher seminars once per year in each region, keeping an updated list of active umpires complete with contact information, and establishing a system where all club and regional regattas are properly staffed by licensed umpires. The recommendations to form the committee were accepted by the ORA Board, and the committee sought out to achieve their initial objectives. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the cost of attending an umpire clinic was $25, which included the cost of a rule book. In a sign of the times, the club hosting the clinic was required to provide the site, a television, VCR, coffee and donuts.


Some of the ways Ontario regattas were run also evolved over the years thanks to the influence of FISA. As more Canadian and Ontario umpires became FISA-licensed, they attended large international rowing events and learned new strategies and methods that they would introduce at domestic events.

“The biggest change in the application of the rules was the influence that the international federation brought to the domestic system,” said Dave Derry, who was the Executive Director of the ORA from 1987-2000 and a long-time umpire. “One example is domestically, umpires used to have verbal contact with the athletes, like telling an athlete to go left or right during a race was totally verbal. The international system was non-verbal with the use of flags. Verbal was problematic due to language barriers, so we brought that change from the international level to national and domestic regattas. The use of flags removed a level of emotion, there was no shouting or raising of voices at athletes, which was a positive step forward for how our regattas were run.”

The use of flags took some time to be adopted province wide. Several FISA-licensed Ontario-based umpires planted the seed of using flags in the late-1980’s, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that it became the standard. Another change that was welcomed by everyone in the rowing community involved the start of races. For years, a 12-gauge shotgun with blanks was used to start the races and signal their end, which scared just about everybody at the regatta including spectators, athletes, and even umpires. The 12-gauge was eventually retired and a horn, sometimes accompanied with the dropping of a flag, became the preferred method.

The umpiring education system has also evolved quite a bit from the beginning of the ORA. The idea of provincial licensing was brought up a few times throughout the years, but it never really made sense and would have made the umpiring education system much more complicated and restrictive. Until recent years, there was only one level of national umpiring and a second level for international umpires. This meant for a domestic race, the vast majority of all umpires across the country were licensed with the same rank. With some not so subtle prodding from Sport Canada, a national graduated licensing system was put into place by RCA to create different levels of umpires based on qualifications, umpire education and experience.

“Sport Canada was a little bit shocked when they found out that rowing, which was such a successful sport in many different areas, only had one level for national umpires,” said Judy Sutcliffe, a licensed umpire since 1999. “Sport Canada decided that their funding to RCA for sports officials was never going to be able to grow unless RCA created more than one level of umpiring, so that brought on the change. In 2011, RCA developed a clinic for the chief umpire role, prior to that there were chief umpires of course but they just had a lot of experience, there wasn’t an education component. In Ontario, we invited all the umpires who were already chiefing regattas as well as umpires who we thought would be good chief umpires and trained them, so they were certified.”

A five-tiered licensing program was implemented across the country in the late-2000’s. The levels in the new system were Level 1 – Associate Umpire, Level 2 – Licensed Umpire, Level 3 – Chief Umpire, Level 4 – Umpire Clinician, and Level 5 – International Umpire. In 2016, Level 1 was changed to ‘Assistant Umpire’, and Level 2 was modified to include designations for both Associate Umpire and Licensed Umpire.

Advancing through the first three levels requires a combination of attending clinics, writing exams, gaining experience in different positions on the regatta course, and time served as an active umpire. For Levels 4 and 5, umpires are required to be nominated by the umpire committee of their provincial association.

Since its implementation, the five-tiered licensing system has undergone some tweaks and changes, such as shortening the Level 1 course as a half-day clinic. After a few years of running it as a full-day course, clinicians were in agreement that the course was too long, and the amount of information provided was too intimidating for an entry-level clinic. It became more of an introductory course and Level 2 was modified to include more information and go into greater detail. New curricula for Levels 1-4 were also developed and were implemented across the nation in 2016. The five-tiered licensing structure has been big improvement and proven to be effective in educating umpires and others involved in the sport.

“The five-tiered licensing system has led to better educated umpires, but it’s more than that,” said Sutcliffe. “The introductory course is not just aimed at umpires; it’s aimed at anyone who wants to better understand the rules of racing and how regattas are run. It’s beneficial for regatta volunteers, and it’s good for coaches so they understand the whole mechanism of running a regatta. More knowledgeable volunteers and coaches help the regatta run more smoothly. After they take the course they can go to a regatta and apply that knowledge and gain more practical experience as well. They see what it’s like and they can then progress in the umpiring education system to become a licensed umpire if they choose to.”

Long-tenured umpires such as Derry, Kuran and Sutcliffe have not only taken on leadership roles on the regatta course but off of it as well. They have served as mentors to countless other umpires in rowing throughout their involvement in the sport and have always been there for advice, to explain a rule or help educate newer umpires on an aspect of the sport. Over the years, the sharing of knowledge and mentorship relationships have helped umpires in Ontario become a tightly knit community.

“One person who I know mentored a lot of umpires was Claude Saunders,” said Derry. “He was instrumental in getting a lot of people into the sport and had a great presence about him. He was a true leader and an innovator in a lot of respects. Some of my mentors were international umpires from the Niagara area like Bill Dann and Jim Stone who you were just able to watch and learn from how they worked. Other people like Judge Harry Edmondson and Joe Lyttle were calm and collected under stress and didn’t need to say much to get their point across. More recently, people like Ken Campbell, Rob Milliken, Judy Sutcliffe and Carol Purcer really stand out to me and big contributors to the umpiring community.”

Other long-time umpires such as Tom Blacquiere and Derek Ventnor have been big contributors to umpiring and are former Chairs of the Row Ontario Umpires Committee. Sutcliffe served as Chair of the Row Ontario Umpires Committee for ten years until 2018, when she moved on to become Chair of the RCA Umpires Committee. During her time as Chair, one of the challenges she encountered and met head on was the lack of women in umpiring. While women’s programming in rowing clubs became standard in the 1970’s, female umpires were far less common. In 1986, Stephanie Brooks, who would go on to become President of the St. Catharines Rowing Club, was the only licensed female umpire in Ontario. Brooks was also only one of five female umpires in the country. It took several decades for female umpires to become more common and great strides in increasing the number of female umpires have been made recently, particularly during Sutcliffe’s time as Chair.

“One of the challenges during my time as Chair that we had to overcome was the number of women in umpiring,” said Sutcliffe. “When I started there weren’t a lot of female umpires, and I think by being Chair of the umpires committee in Ontario I helped demonstrate that it was possible for women to be effective umpires and leaders. During the time I was Chair, the number of women who were umpires in Ontario increased by 65%, which was great and a big improvement.”

Sutcliffe was replaced by Andrew Smith, better known as ‘Smitty’ in the rowing community, after she moved to the national level to Chair the RCA Umpires Committee. Smith began umpiring in 2010 and has had a number of mentors during his first decade as an umpire.

“Judy was definitely one of the people that early on in my umpire career I could sit down and discuss rules with and share ideas,” said Smith. “Martha Coffey was also one of my favourite umpires to work with, she was always very fair and comforting to the athletes. She could always tell when an athlete was nervous and would help them out, so that has always impressed me with Martha. Dave Derry, Ross Yeo and Franc Tomsic were others who influenced me and always had the best interests of the athletes in mind. Wes Kuran is a great resource too. I called him at the last Canada Summer Games during a protest regarding a rule that he had written, and he explained to me why the rule was written at that time which certainly helped with the protest. But really all the umpires I’ve worked with have been very influential and important. It’s always been fun working with everybody, no matter what their experience or skill set is.”

In more recent years there have been a number of changes that have positively affected the umpiring community and as a result their relationship with the rest of Ontario rowing community has been strengthened.

“Technology has definitely helped us stay in touch with each other between regattas,” said Smith. “I’ve also noticed a change where umpires have become more involved with how regattas are being run. Safety has always been really important to the umpire community, and now more than ever, the regatta committees reach out to umpires to ask their opinions about safety issues. For the most part there’s been more collaboration with the organizers and with coaches too. I’ve also seen a change in techniques and calmness from umpires on how they communicate with athletes, especially younger athletes. Those types of things really help everyone have a good experience and a good race.”

Umpires have always been required on race days to run a successful regatta. But through 50 years of Row Ontario and over 100 of rowing history in Ontario before that, umpires have contributed to much more than just race days. Umpires have been some of the greatest contributors and builders of the sport of rowing in Ontario. They are hardworking volunteers who care about the sport of rowing and want to see it grow, succeed, and prosper, on and off the regatta course.

Thank you to Wes Kuran, Dave Derry, Judy Sutcliffe and Andrew ‘Smitty’ Smith for their generous contributions to this story. It would not have been possible without their knowledge and input. 

Photo Credits:

2004 CSSRA Umpires – Carol Purcer

1999 Henley Umpires – Carol Purcer

Claude Saunders and Carol Purcer – George Gage