An open water swimmer can endure the cold, dark, open water often for up to 15 hours at a time. This is where the silent unpredictable battle with the current and one’s own physical and mental drive play out. Bowen Island holds, in its archives, a special piece of open water history and is excited to share its film, photos, artifacts and stories of Frances Cannon. In 1972, Frances was the first woman ever to swim across the Strait of Georgia, which separates the B.C. mainland from Vancouver Island.
Despite Frances’ four previous unsuccessful crossing attempts in 1971, she tried again in 1972. Starting at 10 pm in Nanaimo, swimming through rough water, intense wind, currents and tide changes, arriving 15 hours and seven minutes later on the Sunshine Coast to a crowd that had gathered by word of mouth.
Frances was inspired by Marilyn Bell, the first women to swim across Lake Ontario at age 16. Through looking at the archives we discovered her meticulous journal which helped us decipher some of her secrets. They revealed Frances’ studious natures where she found it easier to do as the teachers requested than rebel. At the same time she would show a rebellious spirit later on to venture into the unknown.
The tradition and rules of Marathon Swimming have been largely unchanged since 1875. By definition, it is a solo non-stop unassisted swim of a minimum of 10 km.
Frances was coached for a period by Ann Meraw, who herself is firmly rooted in B.C. sports history. In 1938, she was the first person to swim from Vancouver to Bowen Island as a teenager and went on to set many speed and endurance records worldwide. Ann became the first registered female lifeguard in Canada.
The history of women in the open water goes back even further, thousands of years ago with the Ama divers in Japan. Ama, meaning sea women, were divers going up to depths of 60 feet in freezing cold water without oxygen tanks. Their techniques have been passed from generation to generation and often starting at 12 years of age, building up their ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and diving into their 70’s and 80’s.
These efforts and achievements have rippled forward, in time inspiring and engaging new generations. Linking us to the present we are proud to include a special feature in the exhibit on Vancouver born Jessi Harewicz, who was the third female to complete the Strait of Georgia swim. Her recent but prolific Marathon Swimming career includes her 2018 circumference of Bowen Island - part of her Howe Sound series - the English Channel in 2017 and the Manhattan circumference in 2019.
Jessi is part of a growing movement of open water swimmers drawn to the beauty of Howe Sound, like an unofficial ambassador she is always a pure advocate of the Sound. This last weekend in May, a friend of Jessi’s, Kim Hedges, is coming from San Francisco with the goal of being the fourth female to swim the Strait. We’ll be cheering her on.
‘Swimming the Strait: The Ultimate success of Frances Cannon’ is on view at the Museum and Archives opening May 28 (Tuesday – Saturday 10 am to 4 pm). With the lazy days of summer and swimming around the corner come visit us and get inspired. Maybe you’ll swim a little further, a little longer this year.