Serendipity in Vancouver

A panoramic view of Vancouver Rowing Club, Coal Harbour and the downtown Vancouver skyline. (Like all HTBS pictures, double click to enlarge).

Tim Koch writes from Victoria, British Columbia:

On Thursday, 16 May, six days into my trip from Calgary, Alberta to Victoria, Vancouver Island, I arrived in Vancouver, the beautiful and cosmopolitan city set between the Pacific Ocean and the Costal Range Mountains on Canada’s west coast.  I was aware that there was a Vancouver Rowing Club and had vague hopes of perhaps seeing it in passing but, not only did I get to visit VRC and find it a welcoming and thriving club with a strong awareness of its history but, by a lucky chance, I was also able to witness a very special event in the club’s 128 year existence.

Tim points out the location of VRC which adjoins the beautiful Stanley Park and overlooks Coal Harbour and downtown Vancouver.

Exploring the Downtown area of Vancouver I naturally found my way to the adjoining waterfront, a modern and expanding business, leisure and residential area overlooking Coal Harbour. Just to the north of this, I came to the headland that is the expansive Stanley Park. Studying a map of the area, I found the Vancouver Rowing Club clearly marked, sited in the inner harbour on the edge of the park. Approaching it I found a delightful ‘mock Tudor’ boathouse with six boat bays and a terrace with commanding views of the harbour and of the Vancouver skyline.

Vancouver Rowing Club. The present building dates from 1911.

The VRC Clubhouse from the side showing its view of the Vancouver waterfront.

At the boathouse, I encountered an unexpectedly busy scene for a Thursday afternoon. I found that they were expecting a visit from Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who was making a four-day visit to British Columbia. He is Queen Elizabeth’s third child and forth-in line to the throne of the United Kingdom – and of Canada (sadly, in North America, he is perhaps best known as the former husband of Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson). Prince Andrew’s father, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh is a patron of the club.  Greeted by an honour guard of rowers holding oars erect, the Prince Andrew spent half an hour at the club of which he is an honorary life member. He had previously visited it in 1978, then accompanying his father.

A VRC Honour Guard prepares for the arrival of Prince Andrew.

HRH Prince Andrew (right) talks to members of the Honour Guard on his departure.

After the departure of the Royal Party, I was shown great hospitality by Nathan Kraft and Bill Myra. Bill is Captain of Rowing and it was soon clear that he, Nathan and others are striving to maintain and develop VRC as an all-inclusive club serving all sections of the community. There are very popular learn-to-row classes and the members range from 14-year-olds to people in their 70s. The proper establishment of adaptive rowing is one of Bill’s current projects. VRC seems to offer a programme to suit most abilities and ambitions.

Bill Myra, VRC Rowing Captain (left) and Nathan Kraft (Board Liaison). Both are part of a team that strives to make VRC a fully inclusive club.

Sculler Eugine Cheng with some of VRC’s fleet of 30 Hudsons, Pococks and WIntechs.

Master rowers David Rahn (left) and Gordan Chutter (right).

Active members of the club belong to one of four sporting sections for, in addition to the founding sport, VRC also offers rugby (originally introduced for the rowers to play in the winter), yachting and field hockey. There is also a thriving social membership for those wanting to take advantage of the splendid facilities offered in an historic setting.  The three main social areas are the Trophy Lounge which, as the name suggests, has a fine display of silver rowing trophies, the dining room / dance hall known as the Harbour Room and the ‘pub style’ Carver Room. All have fine displays of historic photographs, trophies and memorabilia (including Ned Hanlan’s cane) and are immaculately maintained. 

Some of VRC’s social offerings.

The Trophy Lounge. The floors in the three main function rooms are made from Canadian hardwoods.

From a HTBS point of view it is good to see that such a modern and forward thinking club also has such an awareness of its history and heritage. The website has an excellent history section as does its Wikipedia entry. There is a hard to find book by Jack Carver entitled The Vancouver Rowing Club – A History 1886-1980 (1980).

In brief summery of the highlights of the club’s history, the ‘Vancouver Boating Club’ was formed in 1886 and soon built its own floating boathouse.

A picture of the first boathouse in 1888.

Four years later a rival club, Burrard Inlet RC, was formed nearby and Coal Harbour was the scene of many hard fought races between the two clubs. However, following success with composite crews, in 1889, the two merged to form the present club.

Initially the floating boathouses were towed to the present site but in 1910 plans were made for a new clubhouse with ‘a reading room, reception hall, ballroom, gymnasium and accommodation for all racing boats, canoes, and training quarters for the crews’. In 1911, what is essentially today’s building was opened for business having cost $15,000.

The club flourished but the membership was decimated in the 1914–1918 War where a membership of 200 produced 164 volunteers to the armed forces. By the 1920s the club had recovered to the extent that a VRC four won a silver medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics. In 1927, Colonel Spencer of the VRC arranged for the Major Goodsell of Australia to make his fourth defence of his World Professional Sculling Championship title on Vancouver’s Burrand inlet. This was unusual in that races were normally held in the Champion’s home country. Goodsell (‘Major’ was his given name, not a rank) easily defeated the Englishman Bert Barry. However in a return match three months later, also on the Burrand, the result was reversed. Whatever the result, the interest generated was a boost to rowing and sculling in the city.

The inter-war years saw may successes despite the restrictions imposed by the Great Depression but the post 1939–1945 War period saw the need to share the club’s facilities with the University of British Columbia in order to survive. In any event, in the 1954 British Empire Games held in Vancouver, a very raw VRC/UBC crew coached by the legendry Frank Read soundly defeated a much fancied and very experienced English eight (essentially a Thames Rowing Club crew) despite catching two crabs in the first eight strokes. In the next year the same crew beat the ‘undefeatable’ Soviets in the semi-final of the Grand at Henley.  Film of their race in the final is here. They returned home national heroes. In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Frank Read produced the four that won Gold and the eight that won Silver. More national heroes returned to Vancouver. In the 1960 Rome Olympics another Frank Read four won Silver, Canada’s only medal of the Games. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a UBC/VRC pair won Gold. Remarkably the two men were the spares from the eight who had only raced together twice, the second time being the Olympic final.

To quote the VRC website:

The Vancouver Rowing Club’s Olympic record of two gold, three silver and one bronze tops all other rowing clubs in Canada, accounting for six of the thirteen medals won from 1904 to 1964 and all of the country’s gold medal victories up to that date.

A VRC double in Coal Harbour.

In my very short visit to Vancouver I gained a very favourable impression both of the city and of the VRC. I left feeling that other urban developments and other rowing clubs around the world could learn a lot from these splendid Canadian examples and I look forward to a return visit someday.

© Photographs Tim Koch 

My thanks to all those at VRC who showed me such hospitality, to Prince Andrew for the royal wave and to Maggie and Andreas for their patience while I indulged in boaty things.

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