History of the Open Water Swim Series
As a city by the sea, Vancouver has a long tradition of ocean swimmers. The legendary Joe Fortes (today probably only a library name to most Vancouverites) was a passionate advocate for swimming. An eccentric to some, he was the self-appointed lifeguard of English Bay who tirelessly promoted swimming. He taught countless children to swim and inspired many to overcome their fear and plunge into the local waters. Each year during the 1920s and 1930s, a one-mile race between the bathhouse at English Bay and Kitsilano Beach was swum by open water enthusiasts.
In 1931, Percy Norman looked out from the rocks of Lighthouse Park across to Kitsilano and decided he had to swim across. No one knows if he had attempted the route before, but that year he led 40 intrepid swimmers across the chilly waters to commemorate the opening of the original Kitsilano Pool. All made it. (See below for a contemporary newspaper account of this event.)
If the English Bay crossing became an annual event, it was not recorded. Surprisingly, open water swimming never caught on with later generations of Vancouverites. Perhaps it was the construction of new swimming pools that were considered “safer and cleaner.” It was not until 1983 that a crossing event was re-established and the first race won by local swimmer Tom Walker. For two years the route went from Lighthouse Park to Spanish Banks. In 1986, a course closer to Norman’s original route was set, but that year only seven of 20 swimmers reached the distant shore. In 1989 a series of open water races was swum but an annual series proved elusive.
Finally, the VANCOUVER OPEN WATER SWIM ASSOCIATION was established in 1991 and an enduring annual series has been the result. Since then, each year, more and more swimmers compete in the OPEN WATER SWIM SERIES – including the Bay Challenge with its changing tides, cold temperatures and rough water. However, our focus is to be as inclusive as possible by organizing a variety of events that allow swimmers of all levels and abilities to participate. Even the legendary 10 km Bay crossing is open to relay participants to allow as many people as possible to experience the thrill of the challenge.
Open water swimming remains a pursuit “where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed.” Yet, this essentially solitary sport seems to be firing the imagination of this city by the sea.
Report by the Vancouver Sun on the historic first Bay Challenge
August 17th 1931, by Pat Terry.
Moving pictures of The Sun swim will be shown at the Capitol Theatre starting this afternoon. The pictures will be shown as part of the Capitol program for the week.
The dramatic struggle of a young girl swimmer against tide and time, and against a famous British Columbia man swimmer, set nerves thrilling during the hours of the Vancouver Sun Point Atkinson – Kitsilano Pool six-mile swimming marathon Saturday.
Carrie Gray, a last minute entrant to the great race, from Victoria, put up a struggle that will be remembered by the experts many a long day. “Clockwork Carrie” they came to call her as they watched from the decks of the Harbour Board yacht Fispa, following the contestants. Her stroke was a marvel of precision and exactness; her slim body, carving the waterline like a swimming machine, lay just below the surface, setting up little resistance.
A little more luck, a little more knowledgeable piloting, and it is odds she might have won from Percy Norman, the Vancouver swimmer who beat her.
Here was a great race over a gruelling distance, with the best swimmers of both sexes engaged. From the crack of the starting pistol the duel was on. Blazing sun beat down on ice cold sea, ruffled to waves off-shore by a westerly wind. Grease-smothered figures stood poised on the rocks and logs at Point Atkinson. Fispa, carrying judges and officials, rolled lazily in the swell.
A flash of light, the faint reverberation of the pistol fired by Alderman E.W. Dean, the broken line of colour as swimmers headed into the water, the gleam of shoulders and arms breaking sea into glistening beads, and 33 contestants had set their differing courses on the long swim.
Each moment as the hours went by the struggle became tenser. The rowboats accompanying their swimmers pulled slowly towards the opposite shore. The sea was dotted with tiny figures, checked now and again in their journey by the rolling swell that lifted them, then dropped them back into the trough of the waves. Ships outward bound changed course for the swimmers; and all the time, with monotonous rhythm, minds clung to the idea of the race.
Norman and Carrie had taken a course slightly to the westward of the main group, the young girl just in rear. Norman’s strong stroke kept him ahead till Carrie, swimming the faster stroke, 58 to the minute, pulled to the front.
Strung out over the course, thirty-one swimmers battled with the sea. The breeze had freshened as they reached open water. The ground swell took them up on long, languorous rollers that set the judges’ yacht quivering, and made the watchers realise what those swimmers were fighting against.
The half-hour grew to the hour. Norman and Carrie, but little distance separating them, both swimming with magnificent, easy, distance-eating style, had started their great battle which was to end in failure for the girl and well-earned success for the man.
A lump came in your throat as you saw Carrie out there. The swim is no easy thing for a husky man, as Percy Norman, experienced swimmer and one who knows his coast, will testify. She went along, using the crawl, keeping her time with a facility and unfailingness that made you cheer. Those on Fispa shouted to her. She paused for a second to lift an arm in acknowledgement. Her face was one big smile. And again that slim body with the machine-like arms set itself to the task.
She looked meant to win, until it was seen that Norman was bearing a trifle to the east, Carrie’s pilot, her father, striking still slightly to the west, hoping to make the set of the tide. From then the odds changed in favour of Norman.
By now the distance covered was about half, and the contestants had been swimming for almost two hours. The Austin F was finding some work to do, in her capacity of first aid ship. St. John Ambulance men were attending to six or seven swimmers who were exhausted, and had been forced to give up. Their discomfort was soon remedied by hot drinks and warm blankets.
As the Fispa crawled slowly along and back the course, the judges could see the swimmers still struggling gamely with the current. It was a merciless battle, cold, lonely, with the loneliness that always creeps in on a long swim, and one in which spirit and heart play as great a part as stamina and ability to endure.
Twelve year-old Thelma Aspinwall, fellow citizen of Carrie, cheerily pegged away at the job, till those on the Fispa felt the need to cheer her pluck and courage.
But the great duel between Percy Norman and Carrie still held the imagination of those watching the course of the race from the sea. If Carrie’s pilot realised in time that the set of the tide in the easterly direction he was taking would hamper instead of help her, there was still a chance for her success. If not…
Norman swung steadily on his course, almost straight for the east side of the pool in the distance, with slow, muscular strokes. Untiring legs thrust him through the green seas as though propelled by a machine.
Something uncannily inspiring seemed to animate him. His face was set hard with the struggle. His was not the easiest course just there, but determination and a great physical effort took him through the bad water, finally justifying his pilot’s belief. Away to the west the figure of Carrie, and her father’s boat, were becoming smaller. She could be seen fighting the treacherous tide, and it was obvious she could not win.
Norman’s strokes took him nearer shoreward. The benches at the Kitsilano Pool were thronged, and crowds rushed to the water’s edge when the news was flashed that he was nearing the shore. The last few hundred yards, with their inevitable effect on a tired mind and body, tested him to the utmost; but a supreme burst of energy seemed to light him up: the steady strokes did not diminish, and he stood up at last knee-deep in the water, the winner of the six mile swim, to hear ringing in his head the cries and cheers of thousands who know him for a fine swimmer and sportsman.
“A grand swim,” he said with a tired smile. “Pity the little girl was out of her course, for she’s a wonderful swimmer.” That was a great tribute to Carrie.
Only a few minutes later another girl swimmer reached second place, Miss Roy Clarke, who had taken a line of her own and swum strongly slightly to the east of Norman. A minute later Kenneth Hall swam in.
Four minutes later, and only nine minutes behind Norman, another girl reached shore, Doris Parkes, thus adding to the laurels won by girl swimmers on this great test of mind and body.
“I present this cup to a fine sportsman,” said A.P. Dawe, presenting the championship trophy to Percy Norman. “There is no man I would have been more glad to see win the race. It was magnificent.”
The thousands at the pool side echoed the sentiment.
There was a cheer for “Clockwork Carrie”, who fought gamely on to sixth place, and who was introduced to the throng by Rowe Holland, Park Commissioner.
(The Arthur P. Dawe trophy, presented to Percy Norman, is now held by VOWSA – pictured at right.)
Proceeds from the Open Water Swim Series support BC Special Olympics and the Vancouver Lifeguard Association.
BC Special Olympics provides individuals with mental disabilities the opportunity to enhance their lives and celebrate personal achievement through positive sport experiences.
The VLA’s purpose is to raise public awareness of the needs of water safety, provide lifesaving and first aid training, offer lifeguard services for major public events and support sport competitions as a means of improving skills and abilities.