Every year, a group of swallows trace a unique migration pattern across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Eschewing the air, the flock travels by car, ferry and sailboat. And they won’t be nesting. No, they’re bringing tennis racquets and they’ve come to play.
As the second-oldest grass tennis club in the world, the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club has stood sentry for more than 120 years, and for the past 23 years, the “Swallows” have braved land and sea for a chance to play on their hallowed grounds.
Gooey cheese and thick crust were the original catalysts. It was a classic dreary winter evening and a group of friends had just played Men’s Night on the Bellevue Club tennis courts. They were congregating over pizza and cold beer, and in true Northwest form, wistful thoughts of warm-weather tennis vacations began to infiltrate the conversation. How about Palm Springs? Maybe Cabo?
It was then that charter member Chris Arundell recalled a distant memory from when he first came to North America as a young adult. An Englishman who once had the opportunity to play the courts of Wimbledon in the public school championships, Chris was visiting his aunt on Vancouver Island in 1962 when he happened upon a rare sight in the new world—grass courts.
“I hadn’t given it another thought for 20 years,” Chris says. “I asked the guys, ‘have any of you ever played on grass courts?’”
With their interest piqued, Chris promised to investigate for the next summer. Calling the Vancouver Island club, Chris found common ground with the club president, a fellow British expatriate. In turn, the president extended an invitation to the group to come play the private courts. The “swallows” moniker came about later when Chris was reading the newspaper and saw an article about the swallows returning to Capistrano.
Since that initial trip, the group has expanded to around 40 or so, and includes men and women, Bellevue Club members and non-members. They play tennis. They golf. They bond.
“It’s such a fun group of people,” Chris says.
With ages ranging from late 40s to early 80s, the trip and camaraderie transcends age differences.
“We all come from different backgrounds and interests, but the common thread is tennis,” he says.
Although the courts are certainly unique, getting there is half the fun.
“Particularly, the ferry ride through the San Juan Islands—it just makes for a fascinating experience,” he says. Some swallows even sail right up to the Cowichan marina. In fact, until food-handling laws became an issue, the nautical-oriented member had a tradition of catching salmon on the way up from his sailboat and barbecuing the results for their Friday evening dinner and drinks on the clubhouse grounds.
In defense of grass
An accomplished player, Chris explains the art of playing on grass: “It’s quite a different game. Ideally, you want to pick the ball off in the air because you can’t always predict which way the ball is going to bounce. Volleying is a much bigger part of grass court tennis.”
But the differences go way beyond mere shot selection.
“It’s fun to play on the grass because it’s so forgiving on your knees and legs,” he says.
While some of the faces have changed over the years, the trip still includes a core group of charter members who look forward to the long weekend every year.
“It’s magical,” Chris says. “In all the years, we’ve never been entirely rained out. You can’t play on the grass when it’s wet, and we’ve always been able to play.”
While the annual tennis migration continues year after year, the Swallows stay true to their original intent.
“It all emanated from the camaraderie of being members of the Club,” Chris says.