Swim Fest restores traditional pastime on Gorge Waterway

Longtime resident displays memorabilia of historic event

Bob Painton’s Tillicum Road garage houses his classic cars but is also a museum of artefacts dedicated to Greater Victoria sports and a culture of life growing up by the Gorge Waterway.

Among the many artefacts dedicated to Greater Victoria sports history on the wall of Bob Paintor’s Tillicum Road garage is a vintage 1970s poster advertising the Great Inner Tube Race.

In a room adorned with auto racing, lacrosse and hockey memorabilia, the poster stands out as unique.

On the poster is a cartoon characterization of two men paddling their inner tube. It’s based on an actual photo of Painton, wearing a soldier’s helmet from the Second World War, and his friend Pat Jolly. The two were organizers of the bygone race, members of the Hampton Park Hustlers Athletic Association who invented it as a fundraiser. It was once an annual event, which brought thousands to the Gorge Waterway on a late August day throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s.

“We had people lined up five deep from [Craigflower Bridge] to Kinsmen Park. [Craigflower] Bridge was closed to traffic, and you could never do that now, but back then the municipalities loved it,” Painton recalls.

While there is little documentation of the Great Inner Tube Race online, a section of Painton’s garage is dedicated to the tube race. It’s part of an eclectic collection of Greater Victoria sports memorabilia and heritage from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and his classic cars, including a “Woody station wagon” and an orange ’32 Ford.

To this day, Painton lives in the same Esquimalt house his parents raised him in, a few doors down from the Gorge Pointe Pub. By the early 1970s, he was a part of the Hampton Park Hustlers who played over-30 hockey and senior lacrosse out of Pearkes arena. They came up with the Great Inner Tube Race to cover their costs.

Of course, it grew to be far more than that.

With Carling O’Keefe on board as a sponsor, and the collective cities of View Royal, Esquimalt and Saanich behind them, the race caught on with an eager 1970s generation.

At its height, the race drew an estimated 26,000 people along the shores of the Gorge Waterway. It started in the daytime with a parade through View Royal to Craigflower Bridge, followed by the race.

Entrance to the race was simple. You paid $5 (which went to charity), and the only restrictions were a life jacket and two people per inner tube. You carried a paddle but could add nothing to the tube except for paint, usually to promote your sponsor. More than 600 teams would line the bottom of the Craigflower Bridge and paddle the one mile course to Kinsmen Gorge Park. If you touched the shore, you were disqualified. Falling in the water, however, was considered part of the fun.

The day ended with the Tuber’s Ball, a massive party at Archie Browning arena, which helped fund the Hustlers’ fees for the upcoming season.

Looking back, it might have been Greater Victoria’s most hilarious sporting event. Of course, some took it serious. One report cited a record time of 26 minutes and 44 seconds. It may also have been the highest attended single day sporting event for the region, which Painton believes to be true.

“It was bigger than anything else because it drew bigger than any arena or stadium around here can,” Painton said. “Whether or not it was a sport, it was something else,” he said.

Aside from rowing and paddling regattas, this Sunday’s Gorge Swim Fest is the biggest modern day activity in the Gorge Waterway (the Gorge Canada Day Picnic does bring 10,000 people along side it, while Symphony Splash brings thousands to the shore of the Inner Harbour). Swim Fest will bring hundreds into the Waterway’s swimmable black waters, a tie into the Gorge’s rich legacy of swimming that dates back more than 100 years. The story is well known that, once upon a time, 1920s-era crowds gathered along the Gorge log weirs with their wide-brimmed hats and flowing dresses to cheer local heroes against visiting world champs in rowing regattas and swim meets.

But while some decreed the Gorge too dirty in the 1950s and ‘60s, it never bothered Paintor and his pals.

“Swimming in the Gorge? There was hundreds of kids, even on an overcast day there’d be dozens,” Painton said. “It’s starting to pick up again, the paddle boards and kayaks, and more swimmers, because the Gorge is clean, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. We were fine, we never got sick, it flushes out, never bothered us,” he said.

Sunday’s Swim Fest is from noon to 4 p.m. at Banfield Park in Vic West, though Saanich’s Curtis Point off Gorge Park, and Kinsmen Gorge Park remain popular swimming spots.

 

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