History of the Gorge Swimming Galas Along the Gorge Waterway

(~ Excerpts from ‘The Gorge of Summers Gone’ by Dennis Minaker)

In its prime from the 1890s to the 1930s, the Gorge Waterway was the place for competitive swimming for national titles. In 1893 Mr. St. Claire was physical director of the local YMCA, and introduced competitive swimming in the Gorge, within a log enclosed “swimming tank” moored next to the Point Ellice Bridge. Swimmers of all ages enjoyed the annual swimming galas held by St. Claire in the Selkirk Waters and the Gorge. Prizes were awarded by the Premier Swimming at the Gorge and Lieutenant-Governor of BC.

In August 1913, the 7th Annual BC Amateur Swimming Championships were held at Gorge Beach. Competitive swimming in the Gorge Waterway peaked in the early 1920s. By that time 6 swimming clubs were active in the Gorge. The YMCA Swim Club was the granddaddy of them all.

Local competitive swimming was dominated by the Y Swim Club until the beginning of the First World War. The Victoria Ladies Swim Club (VLSC) entered the local scene, and hosted the only swim galas on the Gorge during the First World War.

The Victoria Amateur Swim Club (VASC), created in 1913, has been active in Victoria for almost 100 years, spending their first 12 years in the Gorge. The VASC held the first Invitational Christmas Day Swim in 1920. Woolen hats and coats were the dress of the day for spectators. In 1925 the event was moved to the Inner Harbour.

The Victoria and Island Athletic Association (VIAA) organized in 1914 was reputed to be “the most dynamic club on the Gorge”. A VIAA regatta in the summer of 1917 featured 31 swimming and boating events in one afternoon. In the summer of 1918 VIAA built the first high-diving tower in Victoria, organizing water festivals to celebrate May 24 and Dominion Day holidays, and hosted the city’s first international swimming gala. Free swimming lessons were available for children.

Diving at the The highlight of the summer of 1917 was on June 27 when the city was visited by 3 swimming stars on a Red Cross tour of the continent. Duke Kahanamoku, reigning world champion sprint-swimmer from Honolulu, led the trip of athletes. Kohanamoku won gold medals at four Olympic Games, and is credited as the father of modern surfing. Still today, Duke’s in downtown Honolulu is a favorite drink and food stop for visitors.

While visiting Victoria, Kahanamoku and his friends provided the amusement at the “Grand International Swimming Gala and Concert”. Standing on the roof of the VIAA clubhouse with their guitars and ukuleles they entertained 5,000 spectators, including the Lieutenant-Governor.

VIAA moved the following year to Curtis Point, grandly titled the VIAA Country Club. Following a diving accident from the tower in August 1922, the VIAA was never the same.Diving from the 110-foot tower at Curtis Point (also known as Aaron Point) circa 1920’s

The last two swim clubs in the Gorge used the old VIAA quarters. The Elks Swim Club occupied the site from 1920 to 1926. The Club hosted an annual Night Water Festival in 1922 and in 1923 a Maritime Frolic.

The Crystal Pool opened in 1926 and soon afterward the Gorge swimming galas ceased to be organized and the Gorge was no longer regarded as Victoria’s swimming resort. Subsequent residential and industrial development along the Gorge caused the quality of the water to be questionable due to poor design and maintenance of these developments.

Over the years, a few locals continued to swim in the Gorge but the shorelines fell into disrepair and collected a variety of forms of garbage from plastic bags to grocery carts. Through the heroic efforts of a variety of organizations, such as the Viens of Life, the Gorge Waterway Action Society, the Victoria Canoe & Kayak Club and others, the Gorge has been cleaned up and the water quality is now excellent. The Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) regularly tests the water and has never had to issue a health advisory since the Gorge clean ups began.