- As Victoria rowers at the Elk Lake facility look towards the enhancement of the current boathouse, it is interesting to pause and look back at where we’ve come from as a major sport in the Victoria area. Of particular interest is the series of other venues used by Victoria’s rowing family in years gone by.
Racers between naval officers and the civilian amateur oarsmen of Victoria were a natural outcome. Races on the Gorge and the Inner Harbour attracted hundreds of spectators. These rowing events were as much social gatherings as sporting events in the 1800s.
Rowing became established as a natural pastime as early as 1865 in Victoria because of the Royal Navy Base in Esquimalt. Many of the settlers who flooded into Victoria at the time of the Fraser Gold Rush in 1858 were Englishmen. Rowing had been a favourite pastime in Britain where the Royal Henley Regatta had been established 20 years earlier.
The first rowing club of Victoria was constituted in 1865 and was confusingly enough dubbed “The Vancouver Rowing Club”. It had a remarkable membership count of 75. However, the rowing club to withstand the test of time was the James Bay Athletic Association formed in 1886. In 1891, after a five year stint in an old fire hall, JBAA built a new clubhouse on the Inner Harbour at the foot of Menzies Street.Rowing moved into the 20th century and continued to exist in Victoria in one form or another. In 1927, after years of offers and threats from Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned the property and dock next to the James Bay clubhouse on the Inner Harbour, JBAA finally sold the property to the CPR in exchange for some property on the Gorge. The new property, with several acres of water frontage, allowed for a gym, a recreational hall, tennis courts, a bowling green and a boathouse. Belonging to the club on the Gorge was a status symbol and most members were prominent locals. However, when the depression struck, it gradually took its toll on the club, and in 1938 the clubhouse was sold and became a beer parlour. The JBAA moved to Roberts Street in Esquimalt.
World War II hit, and when James Bay oar men returned from the war in 1945, it was only to discover that their Roberts Street Clubhouse was now inhabited by Sea Cadets. The rowing executive sold the upstairs portion of the clubhouse to the Sea Cadets and was given a 99 year lease on the basement where the shells would be kept.Club morale dropped, there were problems between the executive and the oarsmen. In 1952, the James Bay oarsmen left and moved their headquarters to the northwest corner of Elk Lake where they took out a 99 year lease with Victoria. They built a wooden shack to house the shells through donations of volunteer labour and supplies.
The new rowing club called itself the Victoria City Rowing Club and changed its colours from the blue and white of James Bay to green and white, the official colours of Victoria. The University of Victoria got its start in rowing when gold medal Olympian, Lorne Loomer, became UVic’s first rowing coach. Loomer put the UVic boys on the same intensive program he had been on under UBC/VRC coach Frank Read, and within two years, UVic defeated the powerhouse UBC.In 1986, the boathouse operation was moved from the northwest corner of the lake to its current location, and provides a base of operation for the Canadian National Team, the University of Victoria, Victoria City Rowing Club, and the Greater Victoria Youth Rowing Society.
Currently the building houses over 437 boat seats and is home to some 1470 resident rowers most of whom are included in the 4800, or more, regatta participants who use the facility annually. Over the past 20 years, since the present building was constructed, the sport of rowing has grown in popularity, especially amongst the National Team, High School, Youth Learn-to-Row and the Community Corporate Challenge programs, and the boathouse is feeling the growing pains, it was clear that additional boat storage space would soon required.Two conceptual plans and two studies later, a final version, aimed at providing better facilities for our existing users, and their equipment, was developed and presented at a Public Meeting in 2006. The Capital Regional District and Saanich approvals followed and initial work on Phases 1 and 2 commenced late in 2009.
With the recent completion of Phase 3 in the summer of 2011, the renewal project surpassed all original expectations, thanks to the extreme generosity of many rowers, their families, other supporters and a dedicated fund-raising committee. These donations enabled VRS to provide the required matching funding for the greatly appreciated Federal Government assistance, made available through the Recreational Infrastructure Canada Program. The Province of BC also made a significant contribution.Phase 4, an addition to the project made possible by a generous grant from the Greater Victoria Savings Credit Union, is providing a sectional drive-on safety boat storage dock, which will double as boat-holder platforms during regattas. This innovative concept was successfully tested last summer during the RCA Canadian Masters Championship Regatta.
Donations to the on-going VRS fundraising campaign for creation of a Legacy Fund would be very much appreciated.