Getting to Know the Ottawa Rowing Club
Club Profile/ Jun 16

Getting to Know the Ottawa 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 Ottawa Rowing Club!

Ottawa Rowing Club
Established: 1867
Location: Ottawa, Ont.

The Ottawa Rowing Club has been around as long as the country of Canada itself. Established in 1867, the ORC has had many ups and downs through its 154 years and counting history and has been one of the constants throughout Ontario rowing circles during that time. While the club was formed during Canada’s first year of independence, the sport of rowing was being practiced in the Ottawa region for many years before that.

While the exact date is not known, rowing on the Ottawa River at what is now the Ottawa Capital Region likely started when the Royal Engineers of the British Army began to build the Rideau Canal. The workers were housed on the Quebec side of the river in what was then known as Wrightville (established in 1800). They would cross the river to work at the base of the Rideau Canal in oared ferries. A settlement on the Ottawa side of the river (Bytown) was established in 1826.

Rowing as a sport started a few years later and the ORC was eventually founded in 1867. Founding members of the club included: Governor General the Lord Alexander (Patron); Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald (President); the Mayor of Ottawa, Thomas Reynolds, Lt. Col Bernard ADC, Colonel MacDougall, Alan Gilmour, and T.D. Harrington (Vice Presidents).

The original Ottawa Rowing Club was built on pontoons that were moored at the foot of Parliament Hill near the locks and slightly up-river from the entrance to the Rideau Canal. Every spring the pontoons would dislodge because of logs coming down the river from pulp and paper mills. The problem with this set up was that the pontoons would invariably spring a leak and the entire boat house would sink and every spring the ice would move the boathouse downstream only to be retrieved annually to its moorings. This continued until 1890 when a new clubhouse was erected on solid ground at its present site. Improvements at the club were made throughout the decade and in 1896, the ORC purchased property on Lady Grey Drive and built its clubhouse on the present location. The west side of the original clubhouse on the Lady Grey site remains today and is now referred to by club members as, ‘The Old Boathouse.’

Rowing became a national event in 1880 when the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen (CAAO) was founded with an annual National Championship Regatta, which would eventually become the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Prior to the Henley permanently relocating to St. Catharines, the ORC hosted the National Championship Regatta three times (1883, 1897, and 1901) on a local course opposite Kettle Island. Rowing quickly became a popular spectator sport in Ottaw and in 1881, a crowd of 10,000 came to watch a regatta that featured the legendary Ned Hanlan as a referee.

Throughout the first part of the 1900’s, the ORC was beginning to establish itself as a competitive club, in large part to a group of formidable coaches that included Hanlan, Jim Ten Eyck of Syracuse University and Jim Rice. Ten Eyck led the 1910-11 men’s eight, perhaps the club’s most famous crew, to great success that included a win at Henley in 1910, a US Championship victory just a week later and a narrow defeat to the champion Magdalen crew at the Royal Henley Regatta in a race that was only four seconds off the course record. The crew was stroked by the famous Harvey Pulford, one of the all-time greats of Ottawa sports, along with Felix Sowden, Thayer Joliffe, Bob Greene, Jim McCuaig, Bill Harrison, Ed Phillips, Chester Payne and D. J. O’ Donohue.

However, the club was in for some tough times as the 1920’s came to a close. The Great Depression hit and like many sporting clubs of the time, the ORC ran into financial difficulties. In 1931, the club deeded the property on Lady Grey Drive to the City of Ottawa as a tax settlement, and in 1935, the club’s equipment, land and building were also taken over by the city. Thanks to efforts put forth by Mayor Stanley Lewis, the club was able to stay in operation and its rowers were even able to achieve success despite the difficulties.

The club won the 19th Eastern Rowing Association Regatta in 1939, earning the coveted Comstock Trophy, and claimed six titles at the Canadian Henley the same year. The showing gained Sid Williams, Jack Stothart, Bob Hay and Joe Oliver a nomination as Canada’s representatives at the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, which were unfortunately cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. However, two members of the club did make it to Olympics in the 1940’s eventually, as Gabby Beaudry and Ted Graves qualified in the double at the 1948 Olympics in London.

By the late-1940’s, the membership at the club had grown sufficiently and they rented out one of the buildings at Lansdowne Park for winter training and in subsequent years at the Ottawa Technical High School where dryland rowing machines would be installed. High level regattas also returned to the nation’s capital, as in 1950 a fall regatta featuring crews from the University of Ottawa and McMaster University was held in honour of P.D. Ross, the editor in chief of the Ottawa Journal and a long-time club member, who was also an executive committee member of the CAAO. The club continued to see success on the water in the 1950’s, as in the last half of the decade Tony Biernacki was one of the top singles rowers in the country. Biernacki was unfortunately overlooked by the CAAO when they restricted the Olympic rowing team to 15 members, however he competed on the British Empire team in 1958 and the Pan Am Games team in 1959.

The success would not last though as the 1960’s was a decade of decline for the club. The City of Ottawa, which was still the landlord of the club, did not maintain the premises properly and as a result the building and surrounding grounds deteriorated. In early 1967, the City of Ottawa gave the rowing club an ultimatum to fix up the buildings by May 1, 1967 or find a new location and move out. The Ottawa Journal sports headline on March 28, 1967 read ‘Rowing Club in a Desperate Situation.’ A public call out went out to interested members and alumin to attend the annual general meeting.

The group rallied to save the club in its 100th anniversary year and through donations raised $15,000 to help rebuild the club. They also pitched a unique proposal to the city, outlining the development of an Aquatic Sports Center and a marina on the site of the ORC which would serve more than just the needs of the rowing club and would provide vital services to boat traffic along the Ottawa river as well as access to the river for residents of Ottawa. The proposal received the backing of two City of Ottawa aldermen who realized that the proposal provided a potential for a year-round multi-purpose facility. Subsequently, the City of Ottawa let out a modest contract in late 1967 to demolish parts of the existing building and refurbish the more stable section, which upon completion continued to serve the membership for the next several decades.

With improvements to its infrastructure, the club was able to continue its operations and by 1968 the ORC saw a slow revival of competitiveness with members competing at the ERA regattas and Royal Canadian Henley. A new coach was brought into the club to rebuild its competitive program and by 1970, the ORC was once again thriving. There were 45 competitive oarsmen, some 20 recreational oarsmen and around 30 university oarsmen, making it one of the largest and strongest clubs in Canada at the time. In 1974, the P.D. Ross Regatta was moved to the Rideau Canal and renamed the Head of the Rideau Regatta, which continues to be held every fall. The first Head of Rideau was run on the Rideau Canal as an experiment and was considered a great success with ten clubs attending. Participants came from as far as Boston and Philadelphia, and just a few years later the number of clubs competing had more than doubled to 22.

The club also hosted numerous regattas throughout the 1970’s. In 1976, they hosted the Ontario Championships for the first time on the ORC course and the following year they started the Montebello Marathon, in which crews rowed against the clock from the ORC to the Chateau Montebello some 64km downstream. Also in 1977, with great foresight and organization by Club President Peter King, on the occasion of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee visit to Ottawa, Queen Elizabeth II attended the Head of the Rideau to present prizes. Some 40 clubs entered, and a blue-ribbon list of guests attended (Former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, Minister of Sport Iona Campognolo, Chief of the Defense Staff Admiral Falls, Ontario Minister of Sport Robert Welch, MP Hugh Poulin, Director of Sport Canada Roger Jackson) as well as several thousand spectators. The club would go on to host the Montebello Marathon in 1978 and 1993 and the Ontario Championships two more times as well in two different locations in 1986 and 1999.

The sport of rowing was growing in Ottawa, and in 1978 the ORC’s memberships grew to 100 members, making it the fifth largest club in Canada at the time. In the mid-1980’s a new building was proposed and an arrangement with the city was reached that the City would put up one-third of the money, one-third would come from a Wintario grant and one-third would be put forth by the ORC. Construction on the new building started in 1987. The club focused on becoming more financially stable at this time, and under guidance of Eugene Oscapella, a veteran’s association was formed with the objective being to raise funds for the ORC. This was done primarily through the running of bingos which would raise close to $250,000 over its existence, of which over half was contributed towards the paying off the mortgage agreement to the city on the new building as well the purchasing of much needed rowing equipment.

In the 1990s, high school rowing emerged at the ORC. Crews from Glebe, Nepean, Brookfield, Colonel By and Lester B. Pearson competed and brought medals home to Ottawa at the annual Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association regatta. The ORC also started up an Adult Rowing League program, giving novice rowers an opportunity to have a bit of friendly competition on the water after a short introduction to rowing, to help replace the lost revenue from the Bingos after they stopped running.

The beginnings of the Adult Rowing League took place during the summer of 1997 when a group of 20-25 rowers started getting together once per week to have a few fun races. The group was mostly made up of rowers who were looking to row without the commitment of the masters rowing programs or the frequency of the recreational program. After a year running these less than formal races, a model for the rowing league was formed, featuring an introduction night in May, followed by weekly training sessions in June and racing sessions in July, which were followed by post-race socials at the club. There were already four crews registered for the league and the new format was scheduled to make its debut in the Spring of 1998. After some promotion in the local community papers, an additional 40-50 people attended the first introduction night. This was a great start to the program as it allowed for eight crews to compete in the inaugural year for the league.

Over the years the league expanded and contracted and at its peak had 16 crews with 12-14 members each. Over the first ten years of the program there was more than $250,000 injected into the ORC’s budget while expenses remained at a minimum as the league was run by volunteers. The Adult Rowing League provided great value to the ORC as many participants joined other programs at the club such as the competitive, recreational and masters programs, while others became volunteers at many of the club’s initiatives.

Summer youth camps and youth rowing were also implemented in the 1990’s, as well as hosting training camps for both domestic and international clubs. In addition, the ORC became involved in row touring and started hosting and sponsoring the annual Rideau River/Canal tour which started in Ottawa and ended in Kingston. In 2002, the ORC hosted the first ever FISA Rowing Tour to be held in Canada, which took the same route along the Rideau River/Canal that had been developed and established over the previous seven years.

By the early 2000’s, the ORC was the second largest club in Canada, second only to the St. Catharines Rowing Club with approximately 1000 members across all of its programs. The club’s competitive programs had been steadily improving, highlighted by ORC product Rob Marland winning gold in the men’s eight at the 1992 Olympics. The club was also performing well domestically, regularly winning medals at the Ontario Rowing Championships and Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. In 2002, ORC crews attended the US Elite Nationals, with six athletes/crews reaching the finals and Morgan Jarvis winning the lightweight single. Quite an accomplishment for a club competing against the US National Team and some of the best clubs in the US. Several ORC athletes have reached the national team level and competed at a number of elite level competitions since 2000, including 2016 Olympian Cristy Nurse, 2016 Paralympian Andrew Todd, Matt Christie, Cristy Nurse, Jenna Pelham, Sarah Black, Matt Fournier and several more. Both Josh King and Christine Roper are ORC products and will be attending the Tokyo Olympics this year, with King as the spare in the men’s four and Roper a member of the women’s eight.

After years spent adding and developing their programs in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the ORC is now a full-service club that offers a wide variety of programming options to rowers in the Ottawa area.

“Our club has something for everyone,” said Zak Lewis, the ORC’s current head coach. “Our youth camps and the adult rowing league are the most heavily subscribed, but we have a tradition of strong junior programing, and our senior programs are sustained by our affiliation with the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. I think we’re the only boathouse in Canada that has two university programs rowing out of it. The club’s rec program has been growing over the last few seasons thanks to some incredibly dedicated volunteers and our master’s women compete for a medal at the Charles every year. Our sustained success as a club is no doubt attributed to the team of incredibly talented and dedicated volunteer coaches. We are spoiled to have the quality of coaching staff that we do.”

Throughout its history the ORC has been a frequent host to a wide variety of regattas and continues to host events today. They typically host three intra-club regattas per year, including a high school regatta for Ottawa-based high schools in the spring and the Tulip Regatta, which is a high visibility event featuring clubs from coming to Ottawa from far distances away. The club hopes to continue to develop the Tulip Regatta to a point where it becomes an invite-only event with prize money associated with it. The Head of the Rideau continues to this day and takes place the third weekend of September. The fall event is the club’s biggest regatta with fall clubs and university crews competing at the event which often include crews from the United States.

The ORC also runs inter-club regattas exclusively for club members and last year during the COVID-19 pandemic had to get creative with what they could offer due to restrictions placed on rowing clubs. They decided to host a singles regatta for anyone who owned a single or could borrow one for the club and developed a March Madness-style bracket where a competitor would be eliminated after every race. The races were handicapped for age and gender and took place over a distance of approximately 950m between the Alexandra and Macdonald-Cartier Bridges. The event was dubbed the Masquerade Sprints and was a smashing success, with the winner receiving a custom-made WWE-style wrestling belt as their prize.

In addition to the challenges brought on by COVID-19, the ORC has experienced other major challenges in recent years. In both 2017 and 2019, major flooding saw water levels reach as high as halfway up the doors of the old boathouse. Rowers were not able to get on the water until late June each year shortening their training season and essentially cancelling the Ottawa high school season. These setbacks interrupted athlete training and had its impacts on athlete performance at races. In 2019, rowers did not get onto the water to train until June 28, only giving athletes five weeks to prepare for Ontario Championships and Royal Canadian Henley. The setbacks have led to a decrease in club membership, which was once as high as 1100 members, but the club is poised to rebuild throughout the summer of 2021 and into the future.

“Our club aims to be as inclusive as possible,” said Lewis. “During recent strategic planning exercises the club’s leadership team talked about whether we want to be just a recreational club, or do we want to travel and win medals at the Henley and other events and try to send athletes to the senior team. The consensus has always been that we want to be all of those things. We have a beautiful location and a duty to expand our sport and share it with our community as much as possible. It’s on us to figure out a way to do that without compromising the values and integrity of the club and the experience our current members already have.”

One of the ways the club plans to expand the sport and share with the Ottawa community in the future is working with Athletes Combating Racism, an organization focused on combating systemic racism by being a consistent partner in the community and providing equal opportunities to all youth.

“We were thrilled to receive additional funding from our local MP this season to help kickstart a program we hope to grow that target community members who wouldn’t normally have access to our sport. We’re starting by working with eight organizations in the Ottawa area this summer to bring in youth from less affluent neighbourhoods to allow them to come in and try rowing for next to no cost,” said Lewis. “Our goal this summer is to introduce rowing to 80 kids and if all goes well, we’ll look to expand in the future.”

With plans for the future in place, the Ottawa Rowing Club will look to continue to build on its rich history as one of the largest, most influential and most creative rowing clubs in the country. They have been through numerous high points and low points over their 154 years and are poised to continue their run for at least another 154 years.

Thank you to Zak Lewis and the Ottawa Rowing Club Board of Directors for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photos are property of the Ottawa Rowing Club.