Repost: A personal account: The Water Rat and Outer Harbour Sailing

04 Apr 2019 11:10 AM | Matthew Burpee

A personal account by Paul Henderson, The Pope of Sailing! "The Water Rat and Outer Harbour Sailing"

Please read more in the article from Canadian Yachting:

Mar 28, 2019

Water Rat Celebration

By Paul Henderson

From my point of view, sailing is a sport, which relies totally on the environment. Sailors use a renewable resource—wind—for our power. Our boats sail across lakes and oceans, and we do not scar the surface. Sailors are extremely concerned about the environment. In fact, one of our 1972 Olympic medalists, Paul Cote, was a founder of Greenpeace.

I first became aware of environmental issues in 1966 when I was invited to a luncheon at the Argonaut Rowing Club organized by Gordon Norton and Bill Cox with Jack Jones, the forward thinking chief engineer of the Toronto Port Authority. Jack had built Ontario Place and other marinas along Toronto’s waterfront using landfill. Toronto was going through a dynamic construction boom with a number of large office buildings going up in the downtown core. This required digging large foundations to house subterranean parking lots and shopping concourses, and the earth had to be dumped somewhere. Jack’s solution was to build a large spit out into Lake Ontario at the foot of Leslie Street, which he justified by saying that all this earth had once been under the lake before it receded centuries earlier. Lake Ontario is a huge body of freshwater about 400 kilometres long, 100 kilometres wide and 200 metres deep. There is a ledge east of Toronto Harbour where the lake is only 10 metres deep, and this was where the spit would be constructed. Some three kilometres offshore, the lake bed drops off dramatically to about 100 metres.

An environmental lobby tried to stop construction of the spit on the grounds that it would ruin the natural mating ground of the soft-shelled crab. Sounding a different alarm, a left-leaning New Democrat Party (NDP) city councilor said that the spit would take up some of the surface area of the lake. I could not believe this uninformed rhetoric—Lake Ontario pulsates minute by minute due to small changes in atmospheric pressure. The lake is also subject to strong east and west winds and depending on wind direction, the water piles up at one end and then runs the other way. The surface area of the lake is constantly changing, and the 200 acres of the proposed spit would have a negligible impact on its overall surface area.

At the luncheon, Jack Jones rolled out his engineering plans for the spit and informed us that they had poured a small test area about 100 metres long at the east end of Cherry Beach to test whether it would be subject to erosion by winter storms. They found that this test spit built up as sand collected along its edge. Jack suggested that we should grab it to ensure a footprint for recreational sailing in the waters to be protected by the spit, which would come to be known as the Outer Harbour. We needed 

to come up with a reason to convince our friends at the Toronto Port Authority to allow us to use it. It so happens that the Hearn Generating Station used water from the lake to cool their generators, returning the slightly warmer water back into the Outer Harbour. This kept the area ice-free during the winter. We prepared a letter asking that sailors be allowed to use the test spit for winter sailing, and the Toronto Port Authority gave us a temporary permit to do so for six months in 1968. We purchased eight Sunfish dinghies and sailed almost every weekend all winter long (see photo). It was a very bleak, treeless area housing derelict fuel tanks, salt piles, mounds of aggregate and scrap yards, but it gave us our much needed access to the water. The sailors are still there.

Gordon and Bill

Gordon Norton and Bill Cox, Founders of The Water Rat, preparing to sail a Sunfish at the inaugural Water Rat Regatta December 1970. This shows how the Toronto Outer Harbour looked when we started to use it. The rocks were there to protect the erosion of the shore which was happening before “The Spit” was built, planned by Jack Jones.

The barren wasteland, with no trees, is where the community sailing, rowing and windsurfing clubs now operate. The land was allocated by the Hon. Donald MacDonald.

The Martin Goodman Trail now winds between the Water Rat and the Hearn Power Generating Station. More recently, the same group has tried to get a rowing/dragon boat course dug out north of the Water Rat to save it for recreational use.

Bill Gooderham, Head Cheese of the Water Rat, planted the first trees there.

Gordon Norton, Bill Cox and I are proud of the fact that we started the recreational use of this industrial wasteland guided by the vision of Jack Jones of the Toronto Harbor Commission.


The Water Rat:
We needed a name for our new venture. Gordon Norton was quite politically astute. He observed that since the Toronto city council had been taken over by the left-leaning NDP, it would be ill advised to use the words “Yacht Club” because he felt these words would carry connotations of privilege to the proletarian-minded NDP. Norton believed we should call it “The Water Rat” after the famous line in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows where the water rat says to the mole, “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing . . . .”

Norton also decreed that we should not have a commodore but a “head cheese,” and the always helpful Bill Gooderham was so named. One day I went down to the barren Outer Harbour and saw Bill planting a dozen willow trees which he had purchased. If you go down there today, the 25-year-old trees are very grand.

So The Water Rat was founded. We needed a fence to enclose the area to protect our boats, which we left on the shore but The Water Rat had no money. Colonel Frank Ovens, our mentor and manager of the RCYC, allowed Cox and me to access the membership roll and send letters to our RCYC friends asking each for $100 to underwrite the cost of the fence. This raised the required $10,000. Sailing was now possible in Toronto all year round. The print media that first winter were very supportive.

Thanks to the Port Authority, which was breaking up old lake freighters, we inherited the captain’s cabin and wheelhouse of the Victorious and converted them into a unique clubhouse. The structure was detached with cutting torches, loaded with the Port Authority’s unusually large crane onto a truck, and installed at The Water Rat. We also needed a dock. Commodore Grant, who owned Overland Transport, donated a flat-bed from a semi truck, and it still serves as a very functional dock.

Maury Edwards, also from the RCYC, was CEO of McCord’s Concrete. He said that most nights they had leftover concrete in their trucks and were dumping it out at the spit. If we would meet the trucks at The Water Rat, we could get free concrete for our boat park and thus secure the land. We had a detail of members worked out, and when McCord’s called we would all hurry down to The Water Rat with our rakes, shovels and hip waders. As luck would have it, one night the concrete pumps broke at one of the big building sites downtown, and we got seven trucks each carrying 12 cubic yards of concrete. The Brymer boys, Stu Green and, as usual, my Mary were there to help. That is a hell of a lot of concrete to spread!

Norton was right. At a city council meeting, NDP leader Jack Layton stood up and announced that The Water Rat was the type of recreational facility Toronto should foster, as opposed to the “royal” yachting clubs. He demanded that The Water Rat be designated on new city maps. We were now kosher! I never told Layton that The Water Rat had been founded and funded by members of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which over the years has been the glue that holds all sailing together in this region. The Water Rat has since been turned over to its present users with no strings attached. I trust they remember that it was the RCYC sailors, together with the vision of Jack Jones, who made it all happen, and that it has allowed many entry level sailors to enjoy sailing on Lake Ontario.


Outer Harbour Sailing Federation:

In 1972 there was a very close federal election. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was fighting for his political life. I am not a card-carrying anything, and I usually vote for people I know. I am an entrepreneurial businessman with a social conscience, and am equally as concerned about where tax money comes from as I am about where it is being distributed.

Mary’s good friend Ruth Hutchinson was married to the Honourable Donald Macdonald, M.P., who represented the federal riding of Rosedale where we live. Summoned to a policy meeting for the election, I asked Don what he wanted me to do. “Work for the opposition,” was his tongue in cheek reply.

His advisers felt that the election would be very close and that the densely populated high-rise apartment buildings of Toronto’s St. James Town would be key to the outcome of the election. I had an idea. The St. James Town YMCA had ushered in a new concept for community sailing to introduce newcomers to Toronto, aged 20 to 40, to the sport. It had proved so successful that it spawned similar projects out of the Westwood YMCA, North Toronto YMCA and Mooredale House, all operating out of the Toronto Island Marina. The City of Toronto, which owned the marina, was in the process of evicting them, however, and they had no place to go. Two of these clubs were in Macdonald’s Rosedale riding, as was The Water Rat—Port Authority land is a federal jurisdiction. I suggested that if Macdonald would promise to allow the community sailing clubs to operate on the unused Port Authority wasteland east of The Water Rat, he would be doing a great service to the community.

I told him that the next Wednesday I would be giving one of my monologues on sailing to the St. James Town and Mooredale community sailing clubs and that he should make an appearance at the meeting. I would introduce him and he could make the commitment publicly to give them a new home. My own involvement with these initiatives came about as a result of the established sailing clubs’ refusal to allow these new community clubs to race with them, ostensibly because they had a long-standing exclusive racing alliance. Bill Gooderham and I made it a practice to enter all the keen racers from the community clubs at no charge under the aegis of the RCYC, and in this way we were finally able to break the stalemate. The community programs have in fact proven to be excellent feeders to the established clubs.

At the Wednesday meeting, Macdonald signed up 30 residents of St. James Town to canvass voters on his behalf. The Trudeau Liberals won the election by one seat. Macdonald carried the St. James Town polls by 600 votes, which proved decisive in the Liberals’ extremely narrow margin of victory in Rosedale—he hung on to the riding by only 400 votes! By virtue of our modest initiative, Trudeau carried the country.

True to his word, Macdonald delivered the land east of The Water Rat. Peter Van Buskirk, then manager of the RCYC, became the first president of the Outer Harbour Sailing Federation, guiding it through its early years, and was especially skillful in his dealings with the Port Authority.

For some reason the North Toronto YMCA did not take up its slot, so the Hanlan Rowing Club took over, adding a new aspect to the use of the Outer Harbour. Over the years they have tended to act as if theirs is the controlling use, and occasionally I feel compelled to remind them of Olympic rower Marnie McBean’s observation that rowers sit on their ass and look backwards.


Paul Henderson

Paul Henderson has represented Canada at three Olympic Games: 1964 Enochima in the Flying Dutchman, 1968 Acapulco in the Finn and at the 1972 Schilksee as coach. He also qualified for the 1980 Olympics at Tallinn in the Star but Canada joined the Olympic Boycott against the Soviet Union.

He was a member of the founding group that set up CORK (Canadian Olympic Regatta Kingston)

The first time Henderson represented Canada at the International Yacht Racing Union, was in 1970 to advise on the sailing venue for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He stayed active for ISAF for over 30 years.

Henderson dedicated five years as a volunteer in his leadership of the Toronto Olympic Bid, to host the 1996 Olympic Games and was also consulted to the 2008 Olympic bid and to the 2010 Vancouver bid.

Henderson was elected President of the ISAF in 1994; the first non-European to ever hold this position.

Please read more in the article from Canadian Yachting:

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