Vancouver Rowing Club English Bay

Katherine Stone

What is it that keeps most of us active and involved with our friends when the sailing season ends? Even though I am a very active skier who tolerates the cold February slopes, just waiting to get into spring, corn skiing, I still dream of those lovely days on the water and look forward to launch as the best day ever! Thank heavens that most Canadians get involved with a winter sport to ease the pain of not boating year-round in Canada. Our friends on the West Coast are lucky to be blessed with year-round sailing and power boating and the weather to go with it!

Located in Stanley Park at the northwest end of Coal Harbour, the Vancouver Rowing Club started its history in 1886. However, some 3,000 years before that, the area was populated by the Squamish Nation, who had a large village located in what is now the park. Some of the cedar longhouses measured 200 feet in length and were used by large extended families. The Squamish, along with other West Coast indigenous peoples, practiced ceremonial potlatches where the host would entertain his friends and give away all his belongings…. Don’t know if I could ever part with my skis or sailboat…. Hmmm…..

These were extremely friendly people, as Spanish Captain Jose Maria Narvaez and British Captain George Vancouver found out during explorations in the early 1790s. However, contact with Europeans was not documented for the next 60 years. By then, Stanley Park was viewed as a very strategic military position and the Fraser Gold Rush in 1858 brought much activity to the area, with a large Chinese settlement occupying what is now the Vancouver Rowing Club. In 1886, Vancouver’s City Council voted to petition the dominion government to lease the Royal Canadian Naval reserve for use as a park. In 1888 the park was officially opened and named after Lord Stanley, Canada’s sixth governor general, who also donated the Stanley Cup which was later handed down to the NHL. Unlike other parks, it was not the creation of a landscape architect, but rather a forest and urban space that has evolved over many years.

Vancouver Rowing Club ClubhouseThe heritage clubhouse was opened in 1911 and still maintains its original character today. Several years later the 8.8 kilometre seawall and walkway (which is now 22 kilometres) around the park commenced construction. It would take decades to finish. This was also a time of major achievements for the Vancouver Rowing Club and UBC athletes in rowing and rugby. 

After the depression, expansion plans included cricket, wrestling, football, table tennis and track & field. However, with the departure of many members at the start of WWII, cricket was the only sport to survive. At the end of the war, recruitment for rowing was bolstered with an agreement with UBC. The VRC/UBC “Cinderella” oarsmen started an arduous training schedule which was to prove crucial for the 1954 British Empire Games.  The Canadian Eight, a crew of green kids from VRC/UBC, “After a faltering start when they caught two crabs in the first eight strokes, which nearly brought their lunging shell to a stop, caught up with the Englishmen at the 500 meter mark and, with an unbelievable, sustained, 40 to-the-minute stroke pushed steadily ahead from then on. This unheralded and unorthodox eight won for Canada her first ever gold medal in rowing events in any games.” Meanwhile, both rugby and cricket were steadily gaining strength with members and accomplishments. The club’s yachtsmen had constructed a new mooring float and formed themselves into the Burrard Yacht Club in 1932.

At the next Olympics in 1956 at Melbourne,  a new coxless four won Canada’s first ever Olympic gold medal in rowing  and a new  VRC/UBC Eight brought home Canada’s only silver medal of the games. The Eight repeated their win with another silver at the Games in 1960 at Rome. A two man rowing crew won the gold medal at Tokyo which was the last Olympic medal to be won by a club team. The VRC’s six Olympic medals top all other rowing clubs in Canada.

The adverse effect of all the fund raising for Olympic campaigns had a devastating effect on the deterioration of the clubhouse, which was condemned in 1962. Athletic activities were curtailed and gatherings banned. At a cost of some $42,000 the building’s gumwood pilings were reinforced with steel and the interior was renovated.

Vancouver Rowing Club ScullsBy the early 1970s the pilings had to be reinforced again, but a women’s crew had been formed, and change/shower rooms added for their use. Added to the list of sports were now Field Hockey and Tennis. During the 75th Anniversary of the club in 1974, an invitation was accepted by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to become a club patron. This was soon to be overshadowed by the club’s darkest year in 1976 when a rift developed between the Burrard Yacht Club and the VRC over finances and a lawsuit was launched. As a result, the Burrard Yacht Club moved to new facilities in North Vancouver and a new network of floats was installed through Moorage debentures at the VRC.

This, my friends, is where the VRC Yachting section came into being in 1978! The club archives report that, “With their competitive racing throughout the year the ‘new’ Yachting Section brought a more sports attuned feeling to the Club than had been present in the BYC association.” 

Other changes soon followed in the mid-1980s, when the club pilings finally had begun to rot. With the clubhouse sinking into the harbour, it was again closed, and facilities moved to other locations. The increasing membership fees, assessments, and lack of playing areas took its toll on tennis and cricket that both ceased to be sections of the VRC. The summer Yachting and Rowing sections have continued to this day, along with the winter sections of Rugby and Field Hockey and year round social memberships. All sections have active junior memberships and programs, except for sailing, as small boats, such as optimists and lasers are not allowed in Coal Harbour. Club dues allow members to access the gym, showers, and club lounges. Section dues entitle members to participate in section sporting programs and events.

The yachting members are very active in the English Bay VARC (Vancouver Area Racing Council) with almost 40 boats competing. Four boats also participated in this past summer’s Vic-Maui race. Their current roster includes some 400 power and sail boaters with sheltered year round moorage in Coal Harbour for approximately 225 boats with pump-out facilities on each dock. There is currently a waiting list (which isn’t uncommon in the greater Vancouver area) of 16-36 months for boats over 32 feet. Their outstations in Pender Harbour Marina, Silva Bay Marina, Saltspring Island Ganges, and Snug Cove on Bowen Island provide relief from the city. Although the wet slips are full, boaters can join to get access to the outstations.

Vancouver Rowing Club, Lord StanleyYear round sailboat racing, including an 11 day Polar Bear series running from mid-October to the end of March, is also highlighted with the Ken and Barbie race (yes, prizes are awarded for best and WORST costumes),  and the S.H.A.G (Single Handed Anything Goes) Race. Crew not needed? Who will I yell at? This final race features awards for top rookie, top female, best tale of survival (as voted on by a committee in the bar after the race), and the Turtle Trophy for the last person on corrected time to finish.  In August the VRC hosts a one day Charity Regatta for the Georgia Strait Alliance, to raise money to protect their coastal waters, helping to keep the Salish Sea healthy and sustainable for generations to come.

Come get involved in Vancouver’s oldest athletic club – for ALL seasons whether you have oars in the water, burgees flying, or crests displayed on jerseys! Visitor and Transient moorage is available.

Vancouver Rowing Club; Stanley Park; P.O. Box 5206; Vancouver, BC ;  604-687-3400; 


Photo Captions:

Photo 1 - Looking out onto English Bay, there are plenty of sheds to work on boats during inclement weather. Credit: Katering Stone.

Photo 2 - A Beautiful view of the VRC clubhouse from the seawall. Credit: Vancouver Rowing Club.

Photo 3 - Sculls being Launched in front VR on a quiet calm morning. Credit: Vancouver Rowing Club.

Photo 4 - Katherine Stone spends some time with Lord Stanley. Credit: G. Nicoll



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