Marilyn Bell’s 1956 swim had a Sooke connection

Elida Peers writes about the history of the Sooke region

It was 59 years ago this month that Canada’s famous Marilyn Bell was posed with Sooke’s Robert Acreman after her successful Strait of Juan de Fuca swim.

During the 20th century, long distance swim challenges were all the rage, perhaps first highlighted by Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel in 1926.

Marilyn Bell was born in Toronto in 1937. In 1954 she became Canada’s sweetheart when she swam Lake Ontario, in 20 hours, 55 minutes at the age of 16. In 1955 she swam the English Channel in 14 hours, 36 minutes.

It was in 1956 that Marilyn tackled the Strait of Juan de Fuca; in her first attempt she had to give up, but the next month she gave it another try. On Aug. 23, she swam the 18.3 mile distance from Ediz Hook, near Port Angeles, to Clover Point in Victoria, in 10 hours, 35 minutes.

Back in the simpler postwar days of the 1950s, people seemed to take a great interest in following feats such as this, and everyone was out to help her succeed in the challenge. Island Tug & Barge, one of the foremost tug boating companies of our area (now taken over by Seaspan International), provided support vessels and assistance to Marilyn.

That’s how Sooke’s own Robert Acreman, a crew member on the tug Island Champion, came to be in a position to escort Marilyn, and share in the joy of her success as she managed to withstand the frigid water temperature on this epic swim.

According to reports, some 80 attempts had been made to swim the strait prior to the first actual successful crossing by Tacoma’s Bert Thomas in 1955, followed by Cliff Lumsden. Marilyn Bell was in fact the first woman and third swimmer to achieve the crossing and Victoria took her to their hearts, with a parade and much celebrating.

Robert Acreman, who went on to become a ship’s master for Island Tug and Barge himself, recalls: “It was actually at Finlayson Point that she landed … The weather could be very unpredictable and fortunately we had a good day. All the small boats that surrounded us kept clear of her but were close enough to enjoy the proceedings … she wasn’t a very big girl, and it was amazing she had the strength …. How she endured that cold water I’ll never know!”

•••

Elida Peers is the historian of the Sooke Region Museum.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ronald Schinners, owner of The Cabbie in the #YYJ, opened his taxi service in the West Shore last month. (Dawn Gibson/News Staff)
‘One man show,’ The Cabbie in the #YYJ cultivates 45,000 followers on Instagram

New taxi company brings unusual spunk to the West Shore

Zahra Rayani-Kanji of Heart Pharmacy, Sidney Pharmacy manager James McCullough, and Naz Rayani, owner and founder of Heart Pharmacy, join sisters Becky Brigham and Judy Costanzo outside the business. Sidney Pharmacy has become the sixth Heart Pharmacy outlet in Greater Victoria after its purchase from Brigham and Costanzo. Their parents, Frances and Jim Brigham, first opened the business in 1959. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Sidney Pharmacy changes ownership, but retains family tradition

First opened by Frances and Jim Brigham in 1959, Sidney Pharmacy is now part of Heart Pharmacy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past warned of Öffnungsdiskusionorgien (translated as an orgy of discussions about openings), one of one of the 1,200 words added to the German lexicon as reported by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. (Michael Kappeler/Pool via AP)
German lexicon grows by 1,200 words, many inspired by COVID-19 pandemic

Öffnungsdiskusionorgie (orgy of discussions about openings) among new entries

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead in ‘targeted incident’ on Sooke Road

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

The Port Alice pulp mill has been dormant since 2015. (North Island Gazette file photo)
Parts recycled, life returning to inlet as as old Port Alice mill decommissioned

Bankruptcy company oversees de-risking the site, water treatment and environmental monitoring

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

(Black Press Media files)
Medicine gardens help Victoria’s Indigenous kids in care stay culturally connected

Traditional plants brought to the homes of Indigenous kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

More than ever before, as pandemic conditions persist, the threat of data breaches and cyberattacks continues to grow, according to SFU professor Michael Parent. (Pixabay photo)
SFU expert unveils 5 ways the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed cybersecurity

Recognizing these changes is the first in a series of steps to mitigate them once the pandemic ends, and before the next: Michael Parent

Most Read