Getting to Know the Argonaut Rowing Club
To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Argonaut Rowing Club!
Argonaut Rowing Club
Location: Humber Bay, Lake Ontario – Toronto, Ont.
As the second oldest rowing club in Canada, the Argonaut Rowing Club has an incredibly rich history that has left a mark on not only the Ontario rowing community but the national and international rowing scenes as well.
The club was formed in 1872 by a group of oarsmen led by Henry O’Brien. The group, some of whom had recently immigrated from England to Canada, had ties to the Staines Rowing Club in Surrey, England and were looking to form their own club in Toronto. On June 22, 1872, the Argonaut Rowing Club was officially established with O’Brien installed as the first President, T.C. Patterson the Vice-President, Roger Lambe as Club Captain, and Walter R. Nursey as Secretary. The newly formed Argonauts chose their famed ‘double blue’ colours at the time of incorporation. The colour scheme came from combining the dark blue of England’s University of Oxford and the light blue of the University of Cambridge.
The beginnings of the club were modest. Their clubhouse was a shed located at the foot of George Street, which was just big enough to store their one boat. The early Argonauts soon migrated west, setting up their new club house at the foot of York Street and the Esplanade. The club quickly expanded in size as well, reaching 100 members within a year of commencing operations.
Unfortunately, disaster struck just as the club was beginning to excel, as a fire in June of 1879 destroyed the club house along with many valuables of the club members. Despite the setback, the club rebounded quickly. Within a week of the fire they had collected their insurance money and carpenters were hired to rebuild a new and improved club house.
Once the club was back up and running, the Argonauts began to forge their reputation as a strong force within the rowing community. In addition to hosting their own regattas in Toronto, they travelled all over Ontario in the late 1800s and early 1900s, competing annually at regattas in Brockville, Barrie, St. Catharines, Hamilton, and Ottawa. They also regularly competed in the United States at National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (now U.S. Rowing) regattas, travelling to Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington and Baltimore frequently and even rowing at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. The crews in the early 1900s dominated Canadian rowing, as Argonaut Crews represented Canada at five of six Olympic Games from 1904 – 1928, winning six Olympic medals during that time (1 silver, 5 bronze). The club was now one of the most renowned athletic institutions in Canada, having expanded to include the Argonaut Rugby Football Club and reaching 600 members in 1914, the same year the Argonauts won the first ever Grey Cup.
As the old club house on York Street began to show its age and increased harbour traffic became an issue, the Argonaut Rowing Club began to search for new home. In 1921, taking advantage of the newly constructed break wall protecting the city’s western beaches, the club acquired a parcel of land in the Parkdale area, where the club remains to this day.
“Our boathouse is at the foot of Jameson Avenue, right on Lake Shore Blvd,” said Argonauts current President Jason van Ravenswaay. “We have a 4.4 km course which stretches from Ontario Place to Etobicoke by the Humber River. It really is a great location for a rowing club. In the mornings you can see the sun rise over the Toronto skyline and the break wall ensures that the water remains a flatwater course, which contributes to having more on water training days for our members.”
With the emergence of other strong rowing clubs in Ontario throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Argonauts lost their grip on the title of the undisputed top club in Ontario but remained competitive. In 1952, the men’s eight bested the Vancouver Rowing Club at the Olympic Trials to qualify for the Helsinki Olympics, and the club was still winning regularly at important regattas. The Argonauts experienced some tough times during this era however, as another fire gutted the club in 1947 and one of the few treasures that was rescued from the burning building included the Grey Cup, which the Argonaut Football Club had won for the eighth time that year. Later, a series of storms and floods in the 1970s damaged the club’s docks and boathouse leading to massive repairs. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s interest in rowing began to wane, as many new members of the club joined for social reasons or to play in the two new squash courts that had been added to the building. While a few dedicated and talented rowers remained, many senior rowing members had also either retired or joined other clubs. The low point for the club came in 1979 when only four members of the Argonauts competed at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.
Our goal is to share the sport with everyone.Jason van Ravenswaay, Club President
The poor showing at Henley was a wake-up call and served as a rallying point for both current and former members alike. As the 1980s progressed, an emphasis on diversifying the membership and introducing new programs helped turn around the fortunes of the club. The first women’s program was established in 1980 and the club introduced both masters and recreational programs soon after. Club membership began to rise, former members returned, and the women’s programs became a force on the Ontario rowing scene, regularly winning events at Henley and other national regattas. A number of accomplished rowers also cut their teeth at the Argonaut Rowing Club during this time, such as Olympians/Paralympians J. Michael Evans (1984), David Johnson (1984, 1988), Shannon Crawford (1992), Kay Worthington (1984, 1988, 1992), Mara Jones (2004), Brian Price (2008, 2012), Victoria Nolan (2008, 2012, 2016) and three-time Olympic gold medalist Marnie McBean (1992, 1996).
The success of the Argonaut Rowing Club continues to present day. Argonauts is one of the largest rowing clubs in Canada with approximately 350 members per year with programs suited for rowers of all skill levels, abilities and ages. The club features a strong junior program with close to 80 junior-aged members and every Summer they run Camp Argo, a Summer camp for youths aged 10-14. The success of the junior and youth programs has come from an emphasis on introducing rowing to the Toronto residents at a young age. The club has a Head Junior Coach who serves as the growth engine for the junior programs at the club, working with local schools to bring in new members and introduce them to the sport. The Argonaut Rowing Club was also the site of the country’s first para-rowing program in 2001 and sent athletes to the Para-rowing World Championships in 2004, and to the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Paralympics.
A strong alumni network has also led to a flourishing masters program. Tenured members, many of whom rowed for the club as youths and juniors, have returned to the club after spending years away at school and other life pursuits. Several long-standing members are former elite-level rowers who have been successful at the international level and have continued to row at the club following their National Team careers.
Developing a strong under-23 and senior program has also been a focus of the club recently, providing an opportunity for graduated junior athletes to continue to row at Argonauts in a competitive environment throughout their peak competitive years. In addition to the more competitive programs, Learn to Row programs for novices are frequently run and the club hosts two longstanding regattas, the Martha Coffey Frost Bite Sprints and the Hog Town Heats, each year which are geared towards recreational rowers.
“In the last few years we’ve really renewed our focus on engaging the community and making sure we’re leaving no member behind,” said van Ravenswaay. “We’ve invested in transforming the facility to be completely accessible and our facilities are great for both on and off water training. Our goal is to share the sport with everyone, whether it’s by bringing in someone who has never rowed before for a try-it day, or to attract para-athletes from other sports or connecting with local high schools. We want to help them develop the lifelong passion for rowing that our members share together.”
Even after all these years the Argonaut Rowing Club is still looking to improve and grow the sport. In 2019, the club received both the Row Ontario Club of the Year Award as well as the Club – Outstanding Achievement Award with Rowing Canada Aviron. Its rich history combined with its present-day forward thinking has the club well-positioned to continue to succeed as it approaches its 150th anniversary.
Thank you to Jason van Ravenswaay for his generous contributions to this profile. The above photo is property of Dann Tardif Photography.