On the water

Water sports icon

From casual swims in the lake to organized international competitions, Toronto’s harbour, rivers and beaches have always been popular venues for sport and recreation.

The city’s early yacht and sailing clubs were social clubs catering to the elite and affluent. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club of Toronto, perhaps the most prestigious in Canada, was founded in 1852.

With the advent of competitive sailing, water sport clubs began to sponsor races and regattas. By the end of the 19th century, regattas were one of the most popular sporting events in the city, attracting thousands of eager spectators to Toronto’s waterfront.

Ned Hanlan, a competitive sculler from Toronto, came to dominate the sport in the 1880s. Famous for his speed and strength, he became Toronto and Canada’s first sport hero.

Hanlan-Plaisted International Rowing Competition, Toronto Bay, 15 May 1878. Toronto, Ont.

Ned Hanlan racing Fred Plaistad, Toronto Bay
Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, 1846-1923
Albumen print, 1875







Edward “Ned” Hanlan was born in 1855 to parents who operated a hotel on the west part of Toronto Island. The waterways around the island became his training ground and he began sculling competitively by the age of 18.

Known as the “Boy in Blue” because of his racing colours, Hanlan became Canada’s first world champion in 1880. He successfully defended the title six times and went on to win over 300 races over the course of his career. He was known as a showman who tried to narrow his margin of victory to keep spectators (and gamblers) on their toes.

To find out more about him, can also read our blog post about sculler Ned Hanlan, Toronto's first sporting hero.

Edward Hanlan, 1855-1908

Edward Hanlan (1855-1908)

W. Williamson

Albumen portrait on glass, 1876

Gift of Mrs. Dyce Saunders


This stunning portrait of Ned Hanlan is what is known as a crystoleum, a popular photographic process from the late 19th century. To produce a cyrstoleum, an albumen (egg white) print is applied to convex glass. The paper is rubbed away leaving only the photographic emulsion. Fine details are then painted on the back of the print. Usually, a second piece of convex glass would be layered behind the image glass with additional hand-painted elements.

Poster for Toronto Regatta on Thursday, August 1, 1839

Poster for Toronto Regatta
Commercial Herald Office, August 1, 1839

A Century of Yachts on Lake Ontario, 1795-1911

A Century of Yachts on Lake Ontario, 1795-1911 Charles Henry Jeremy Snider, 1879-1971

Pencil drawn on watercolour board. Coloured with watercolour, gouache & touches of gold metallic paint by Owen Staples, 1866-1949


Gift of John Ross Robertson

This delightful work features prominent sailing ships from 1795 to 1911. The dates in the key refer to the first appearance of each yacht.

Toronto Canoe Club, waterfront, west of York St

Toronto Canoe Club
Unknown photographer
Photograph, ca. 1906

The Toronto Canoe Club was founded in 1880 and made great contributions to the recreational life of Toronto. The building pictured here was the home of the club from 1887 until it was relocated to its present site on Lakeshore Blvd. W. in 1920. In 1939, it became the Toronto Sailing & Canoe Club.

Official programme for 3rd Wrigley marathon

Official Programme for 3rd Wrigley Marathon
Toronto: Canadian National Exhibition, 1928
Facsimile of cover

The Canadian National Exhibition hosted the 3rd Wrigley Marathon on Wednesday, September 5th, 1928, world's fifteen mile championship. Unfortunately that year, the frigid waters of Lake Ontario prevented all competitors from completing the race, and the competition was declared a non-contest.

Balmy Beach Club was incorporated in 1903 and the club house opened for its members in 1905. The club hosted many different activities and groups over the years including rugby, hockey and squash, and other sports such as football, harriers, volleyball, basketball, deck tennis, surf boarding, tennis and more. The club is still very active today.

Spring Regatta, Toronto Canoe Club, Centre Island June 21st, 1890

Spring Regatta, Toronto Canoe Club, Centre Island
Toronto Canoe Club, Toronto, June 21st, 1890

Regattas and other boating events have long been a part of the Toronto Island culture. The Toronto Canoe Club was founded in 1880 and is now known as the Toronto Canoe and Sailing Club. The club still hosts regattas today including the “icebreaker” regatta in May.

Views on the bay, Toronto

Views on the Bay, Toronto, ON Canada
The Valentine & Sons Publishing Company, ca. 1914

The Toronto Rowing Club is pictured at bottom right of this delightful postcard celebrating water sports on the Toronto Bay.


Member’s Certificate, 1919

National Yacht & Skiff Club


The National Yacht & Skiff Club was established in 1894. In 1947 the name of the club changed to its current name, the National Yacht Club. The club has been a long standing tradition in Toronto, and has helped shape the waterfront as we know it today.

Mr. William Dunn(e) Esq. was a life member of the club. The library has a record of his membership cards dating from 1919-1964.

Ice boat, Toronto Bay

Ice Boat, Toronto Bay
The Valentine & Sons Publishing Company, ca. 1907

Iceboating started to gain popularity as early as the 1820s in Toronto. In 1911, the Toronto Harbour Commission took measures to modernize the harbour and in the process disrupted the ice so much that many iceboaters were forced to move to smaller island lagoons and other lakes like Lake Simcoe. The sport did see a short-lived revival in the 1940s.

Sunnyside Boating Club Annual Fall Regatta Saturday, Sept. 24th 1892

Annual Fall Regatta
Sunnyside Boating Club, Toronto, Saturday, September 24, 1892

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the most popular areas in Toronto for recreation was Sunnyside at the west end of Toronto Harbour.

The famous sculler, Ned Hanlan was a judge in this regatta. Hanlan retired from competitive rowing in 1897 and dedicated himself to mentoring and coaching.

Central Toronto YMCA Swimming Club badge <br />

Swimming Club felt patch
Central Toronto YMCA, ca. 1906-1910

The YMCA has had a long standing tradition of sports clubs in Toronto. In 1888 the first indoor YMCA pool was built in Toronto. Starting in 1906, the YMCA staff members were teaching a radically new style of swimming to groups rather than individuals using land drills to teach strokes.

Toronto harbour looking west from east of foot of York Street

Toronto harbour looking west from east of foot of York
Unknown Photographer
Photograph, 1906

This 1906 photograph captures the Argonaut Rowing Club, at left, and Queen City Yacht Club, at right.

Argonaut Rowing Club

Argonaut Rowing Club, waterfront, west of York St.
Stereoview card, ca. 1900

The Argonaut Rowing Club was founded in 1872 by a group of amateur oarsmen known as the Orioles. Club members had also participated in other sports such as rugby-football and hockey. The football team, called the Toronto Argonauts, was one of the original teams in what is now the Canadian Football League.