Dragon Boat Racing began more than 2,000 years ago on the rivers of southern China amidst myths and legends that swirl around its humble beginning. The races were different in those days, when people staged mock dragon battles in the hopes of awakening the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. It was thought that by doing so, the dragon would bring the rain needed to water the crops.
In modern times, people no longer race to awaken dragons. Instead, they race to win. Plus, for fun, friendships, exercise, the thrill of competition and more.
During the 1986 Expo, Dragon Boats were brought to Vancouver to race for the first time. The exhibition proved popular and a couple of key individuals thought the sport could be used to promote racial harmony and cross-cultural understanding. Former Lieutenant-Governor David Lam and his partner, Milton Wong, were the driving force behind the first Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver in 1989. More than just a boat race, Lam and Wong wanted the Festival to be a celebration of cultural diversity, so they included food, entertainment and exhibits. These festivals proved tremendously successful and continue to this day, with the 20th annual event slated this month.
In 1998, one of Milton Wong's nieces, a young woman named Gwen Wong, secured a position working at Dogwood Pavilion, a seniors' centre in Coquitlam. She brought with her a fresh approach and a new set of eyes focused on dynamic programming for local seniors. One of her more popular ideas was the launch of a Dragon Boat Racing Team. Some call it a stroke (pardon the pun) of genius.
A paddler herself, Gwen had watched a team of seniors called the Grand Dragons of False Creek compete a number of times over the years. She decided to share her passion for the sport with the members of Dogwood to gauge their interest. The fledgling team started out slowly in the fall of 1998 by advertising for interested potential paddlers in their newsletter and local community newspapers. They held an information session and a woman from the Lotus Sports Club gave a motivational talk to 30 or 40 interested participants. From there, the "Nothin' Dragon" Dragon Boat racing team was formed.
The team began dry land training in preparation for hitting the water in the spring of 1999. The practices were exceedingly tough for the first few years, so team members had to show tremendous dedication to their new sport. Their practice site was Barnett Marine Park in Burnaby. This meant that before they could even dip their paddles into the water, the team had to load the rented dragon boat onto a trailer, walk it several hundred feet from its storage locker to the water, sink the trailer, pull the boat into the water and haul the trailer back to shore. At the end of each practice, the process was reversed. Incidentally, Dragon Boats weigh about 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg).
After many years with this arrangement, a Victoria-based company moved some boats to Port Moody and allowed teams to rent them. Until recently, the Nothin' Dragon team used this option for training. When the company headed back to the Island, the team purchased their rented boat with the assistance of a city grant.
The Nothin' Dragon team trains nine months of the year with dry land training and stretching exercises through the winter, and an hour on the water twice a week when the weather permits. Approximately 55 members are organized into two boats, and they are extremely dedicated to their sport through both training and fundraising efforts.
After several months of dry land training and a few months practising on the water, the Nothin' Dragon team set out for their first race. They would be competing on the biggest stage for Dragon Boat racing competitions in North America, against a team that had dominated racing at the senior level since it began; a team with more than half a dozen men on their mixed team, while the Dogwood entry only had four.
Races are 500 metres and the Nothin' Dragon team, not realizing they weren't supposed to have a chance, gave it their all and turned the event into a race. In fact, the finish was so close it took officials more than 10 minutes to declare the winner. Imagine how shocked the Grand Dragons must have felt to lose to the upstarts from Coquitlam!
The next year, the Grand Dragons showed up with 12 men on their team compared to Dogwood's six. Still, the Nothin' Dragons prevailed again for their second gold medal in as many years. These results motivated the Grand Dragons to the point that the Nothin' Dragon team has taken only one more title in the intervening years, though they have medaled every year. Now, five senior teams compete, two from False Creek, two from Dogwood and one from the States.
Due to the lack of senior teams, the Nothin' Dragon boat often battles against younger paddlers at the 10 or so regattas they compete in annually, mostly around Vancouver. Dan Strain, an original team member, says one of his favourite things is to line up next to a team of younger competitors prior to the race and watch them snicker behind their hands at the seniors they will compete against; and then going out on the water and beating them.
"I just love seeing the expressions on their faces," says Dan.
A Dragon Boat team consists of 22 individuals, and while it is important for each member to do their share and to work as a unit, four members have special jobs. The steersman stands at the back of the boat and keeps an eye on the other teams. They are responsible for keeping the boat on course as they race their 500 metres towards the finish line. The steersman uses a long oar to steer the boat.
The drummer is positioned at the front of the boat and also watches the competition. The drummer sets the stroke pace, pounding out the various beats for different types of strokes. The team will use one stroke to get started, another for gliding and yet another for the frantic finish with many variations on this basic strategy.
The first two paddlers are responsible, along with the drummer, for setting the pace. Communication is critical as paddlers take their cue from the front two, and they need to know from the drummer what strategy to employ. When the team races, it's important that the drummer hits the drum precisely as the lead paddlers dip their oars into the water.
One new initiative the team is pleased to be involved with this year is an opportunity to expose the sport to youth at risk. The Dogwood Pavilion board received some funding for this initiative and plans to organize four excursions to take young people out on the water. The hope is that by providing new opportunities, they will encourage kids to make better choices for their leisure time.
Original team member Pat Johnson hopes others can benefit from the experience, as she has.
"It is so much fun," says Pat. "It's not about individuals. We are a team."
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