Getting to Know the Georgian Bay Rowing Club
Club Profile/ May 6

Getting to Know the Georgian Bay Rowing Club

We are starting a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario to honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community. Today we get to know more about the Georgian Bay Rowing Club!

Georgian Bay Rowing Club
Established: 1985
Location: Little Lake – Midland, Ontario

Like most rowing clubs, the Georgian Bay Rowing Club had humble beginnings, a few passionate rowers to get started, and a little help getting up and running.

While the sport had been around for over a century, rowing was first introduced as a recreational activity to the Midland, Ont. community in the early 1980’s. One of the driving forces behind the club, Guenther Drews, who had rowed competitively in Germany, had made his way to Midland and shared his passion and knowledge of the sport with members of the community. Soon after, a movement to establish a formal rowing club was created, despite Drews being one of the few experienced rowers in town.

In 1984, a rowing club was created with a few members whom Drews had taught how to row. As word of the club began to spread around town, more people began to show up to participate, despite not having any experience and limited knowledge about the sport. The group began to grow, and it became incorporated with an official name, the Georgian Bay Rowing Society, in 1985. Drews was installed as the clubs first President and was instrumental in completing the work necessary to help the club get established during in its infancy stages.

The club operated out of members backyards, nearby beaches, and trailers in its early years until a doctor in town donated the use of his land for a place to store the club’s boats (which at the time, was only one boat). In 1995 the club moved to its permanent home in Little Lake Park, giving members access to a spectacular rowing venue in the region – Little Lake.

Little Lake is 1700m long lake that accommodates a 1000m racing course and is small enough that waves are seldom an issue, making it an ideal location for the club.

“The beautiful part about Little Lake is our members can row on it every single day that there’s no ice in the water,” said Doug Rourke, Georgian Bay Rowing Club’s current President and a member since 1985. “There are no motorboats, hardly any waves and the only thing that takes us off the lake is if there’s lightning in the area. Once new members get out rowing on the lake, they really see why we enjoy it so much and what an amazing experience it can be.”

As the club continued to grow, more and more programs were created to fit the needs of the membership. Presently, the club offers programs for all segments of the rowing community, including youth, junior and U23, masters, learn to row for novices and an adaptive program for para rowers. The club has also hosted regattas over the years, running the Near North Regatta, a Masters-only regatta, for two years and hosting annual in-house high school regatta at the end of every high school season.

With growth in programs bringing in new members, the club has reached a modest size of 65 members, give or take in any given year. Despite its modest membership size, the Georgian Bay Rowing Club has produced numerous national level talents, with rowers going on to compete for Ontario at the Canada Summer Games and many rowing in university programs across Canada and the USA. One of the most talented rowers to come out of the club was Craig Smallwood, who in the early-2000’s competed with the Junior National Team and earned a full scholarship to row at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, before a previously undiscovered heart condition sidelined his rowing career. Smallwood would unfortunately pass away on Good Friday of this year. His untimely passing was felt strongly at the club and all those who knew him in the Midland area.

Rowing for Georgian Bay has gained respect in rowing circles and we're no longer viewed as just some small recreational club from the middle of nowhere.

Doug Rourke, Club President

Many talented rowers have continued to row at the GBRC throughout their adult life, and as result the club has developed a very strong masters program. They regularly win efficiency awards at regattas throughout Ontario and the USA and former national team rower Kathryn Barr McGill now calls the club home.

“Five years ago when I was coaching high school kids, I would tell them after they graduate high school it’s in their best interest to find a bigger club where they could continue their development,” said Rourke. “Now we have such a great group of people and our masters program is developing so much that we have the ability to continue to develop athletes throughout their careers, they don’t necessarily need to go to a bigger club to continue developing. One of the biggest strengths of our program is we are humble, and always looking to learn and improve and look out for the best interest of athletes and the sport. There are extremely passionate people running our programs and our athletes can hopefully see our commitment to them as people and their development as rowers.”

The club is still looking to improve itself both on and off the water after all these years, and just last year they received a Trillium Grant that allowed them to buy new equipment, make repairs to their boathouse and dock and purchase new boats. All the improvements were completed with the best interests of the membership in mind, a group which stretches beyond Midland into the surrounding Georgian Bay and Muskoka area.

“We try to look at our club from a regional approach, there’s a lot of people spread out geographically North of Toronto, outside of the traditional rowing centres, we want to be very welcome and inclusive to everyone,” said Diane Barr, Vice President of the GBRC. “We have members who live an hour away, who train on their own and get together for group training once or twice a week. We really want to make our club an inclusive environment for everyone and we welcome anyone who is interested in rowing, no matter what their skill level or experience is.”

The Georgian Bay Rowing Club has been through a lot in the last 35 years, and Rourke and Barr, who are now in the roles of club leaders, have seen the growth firsthand.

“It’s been fun to watch the evolution of the club from the time I started rowing in the mid-80’s to when I began coaching in the mid-90’s to where we are today,” said Rourke. “Rowing for Georgian Bay has gained respect in rowing circles and we’re no longer viewed as just some small recreational club from the middle of nowhere.”

Thank you to Doug Rourke and Diane Barr for their generous contributions to this profile.