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!”

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Elida Peers is the historian of the Sooke Region Museum.

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