VICTORIA -- Swimmers donned wetsuits and took to the waters of Victoria’s Upper Harbour Wednesday to promote the return of swimmers racing in the channels of the Gorge waterway for the first time since 2000.

Like many public events in Greater Victoria, Gorge SwimFest, which showcases the revitalization of the waterway, was cancelled this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

To celebrate the return of the event in July 2021, organizers are setting a course that will see athletes and swimmers of all ages compete in what the society calls “Victoria’s natural swimming pool.”

“There’s not a lot of actual open-water swimming competition and we have this wonderful venue so it needs to get used so that was the inspiration,” said open-water swimmer and endurance athlete Rob Sainsbury. “I’ve been doing a lot of swim races around the world in places like Mexico and Croatia and it’s this good at home so why wouldn’t we do it here?”

SwimFest organizers have been looking to have an open-water swimming race in the Gorge for the past 10 years. The last organized race event in the waterway was held in 2000 and saw elite international open-water swimmers compete. 

“There is a rich history of swimming in the Gorge because 100 years ago there were no swimming pools and it was hard to get to the lake, so this was the summer resort for Victoria,” said Gorge SwimFest Society president Jack Meredith. “There were swim races, there were swim instructions and all sorts of water antics going on.”

Meredith said the return of open-water racing will recreate the history of celebrating the Gorge. He added that having an open-water swim race emphasizes that the waterway that flows from Victoria’s Inner Harbour, past the shores of Saanich and Esquimalt, to the bridge at Tillicum Road, is clean.

The races will be open to swimmers of all ages with a variety of competitive courses ranging from five to one-and-a-half kilometres in length. Longer course races are expected to start in Saanich at the Tillicum Road bridge and continue down the waterway with the finish line the Inner Harbour.

Sainsbury said a shorter course is being considered for younger swimmers who want to experience open-water swimming for the first time.

“It’s for all ages, it’s for all levels of experience so if you want to come down and learn open-water swimming, there will be coaches and resources available,” said Sainsbury. “This is a way you can enjoy the place that you live.”

By adding open-water swim races to Gorge SwimFest, the society hopes to attract elite competitors from around the world. 

If successful, the goal will be to have the points earned at the event included with others earned on the international open-water swimming circuit.

The date for Gorge SwimFest 2021 is yet to be determined, but the event is expected to be held on a Sunday in late July.