Vancouver Feature: Joe Fortes Saves Lives, Wins Hearts

Vancouver’s “Citizen of the Century” was a portly Barbadian-born barman named Joe Fortes. Living in a small cottage near the bandstand in Alexandra Park, Fortes was the first official lifeguard at English Bay beach. He taught hundreds of Vancouverites how to swim.

Joe Fortes (1865-1922) arrived in Vancouver as a deckhand on a sailing ship in 1885 and found work in a Gastown saloon. By 1901 his love of swimming had earned him the job of lifeguard and swim teacher at the beach. He reputedly saved more than 100 lives and was a celebrity in the city. In 1986 the Vancouver Historical Society named him Citizen of the Century.

Originally a fishing spot used by the Squamish people, English Bay developed during the 1890s as a swimming spot for residents of the West End. Over the years special attractions have come and gone, including a long pier with a dance hall at the end (1907-1938), a roller rink and an aquarium featuring Oscar the Octopus (1939-56).

On New Year’s Day each year English Bay is the scene of a Polar Bear Swim. This gathering of masochists was inaugurated in 1920 by restaurateur Peter Pantages and nine of his friends. Today the swim attracts more than 2,200 participants.