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Marilyn Bell Memorial

Big crowds for marathon swimmer

18 year old Marilyn Bell made her first attempt to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca on August 10 1956 starting from Horseshoe Bay. The Bay, shown on the left, lies directly below Beacon Hill and west of Finlayson Point.

Dubbed “Canada’s swimming sweetheart,” Bell started swimming in the 49 degree Fahrenheit water before 6 a.m. after a cheery wave and a “Good Morning, everybody!” to 1,500 spectators. Her skin was coated with a thin layer of vaseline. She was paced by swim partner Cliff Lumsdon; the navigator was veteran tugboat skipper Capt. Ellice Cavin of Island Tug and Barge. If conditions were poor and she had to quit, Bell was prepared to try again.

Bell’s distance swim attempt was number 58 in the history of Strait of Juan de Fuca swimmers. She had been the first to swim the width of Lake Ontario in 1954 and swam the 22 mile English Channel for a prize of $15,000. Bell would earn $30,000 from her sponsors, including the Times, if she made it 18.3 miles to Port Angeles and $20,000 if she failed. (Times, August 10, 1956, p. 8)

After nine hours and 50 minutes in the water, Marilyn Bell stopped the swim five and a half miles from Port Angeles. Though she had won $20,000 for her failed effort, she decided to try again and, if successful, would earn the other $10,000. (Times, August 11, 1956, p. 1) Before Bell’s second swim, her partner, Cliff Lumsdon, swam from Horseshoe Bay to Port Angeles on August 16 but there was no prize money for him.

Marilyn Bell made her second attempt to swim the Strait of Juan de Fuca on August 23. She started from Port Angeles, Washington this time, swimming north. A planned landing at Horseshoe Bay provided an exciting opportunity for Victoria spectators and anticipation grew as reports of her progress circulated through the day. A crowd of 30,000 to 40,000 gathered along the Dallas Road waterfront two hours before her arrival.

Marilyn landed east of Finlayson Pt.Despite a 15 mile an hour wind and choppy seas, Marilyn Bell made the Strait crossing on her second try. She drifted east slightly as she neared the beach and landed at the unnamed bay just east of Finlayson Point, shown on the right. (Times, August 23, 1956, p. 1) The Times described the crowd cheering Bell as she swam to shore:
[Spectators] were lined shoulder to shoulder on the cliff’s edge along the Beacon Hill Park waterfront. As the flotilla drifted eastward, the mob edged toward Clover Point until the rocky headland was covered by cars and people...two big bonfires were lighted on the beach to guide the swimmer in.” (Times, August 24, 1956, p. 11)
Marilyn Bell set five records: fastest time for a Strait crossing (10 hours and 38 minutes); fastest time for a south-north crossing; first Canadian to complete a south-north crossing; first woman to swim the Strait; youngest person to swim the Strait. A parade through Victoria and a reception in Beacon Hill Park was organized. (Times, August 24, 1956, p. 11)

In 1957, a monument marking Bell’s swim was erected along the Dallas Road footpath, above the unnamed beach east of Finlayson Point on which she landed. It states:

This cairn commemorates the feat of Miss Marilyn Bell who landed in this bay 23rd August, 1956 to become the first woman and first Canadian to swim Juan de Fuca Strait from Port Angeles, U.S.A. to Victoria, Canada.

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