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.
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.