Here, There Be Dragons

By Kevin McKay


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Not long after Vancouver held their first Dragon Boat Festival in 1989, some people on Vancouver Island decided they wanted in on the fun! They formed the Gorging Dragons in 1995 – the first dragon boat team on the Island.

Of course, the sport, itself, is much older, tracing its origins back to rivers in Southern China more than 2,400 years ago.

Despite their late start, the Island paddlers quickly made up for lost time with the Gorging Dragons Premier Mixed team representing Canada at the 2004 and 2008 Club Crew World Championships in South Africa and Malaysia, respectively.

Tom Arnold is the head coach of the Gorging Dragons and President of Vancouver Island Paddling. He was part of that 2008 boat and had his eyes opened as a result.

“We were exposed to the tremendous diversity of opportunities provided by the sport for athletes of all ages and abilities," he says. "We wanted to see more of those opportunities become available for people on Vancouver Island and seeing no one else taking the lead, we joined with two other local teams to launch a new paddling club that would be committed to growing the sport here.”

The new organization that emerged opened the door to many new paddlers; one of the groups that showed interest and started competing was seniors. No one, however, could have anticipated the results.

“In late 2011, we launched the Gorging Dragons senior program," says Tom. "Competitive dragon boating for older paddlers was new for the Island so, while there was a lot of interest, there was also a lot of nervousness for the previously recreational paddlers. But they gave the program a try and realized results we couldn't have imagined would come so quickly."

"In 2012, we took both mixed and women's teams to the BC Senior Games in Burnaby for athletes aged 55+. The women won the silver, and the mixed team won the gold, an amazing result for a first-year program.”

Like the other boats that form the Gorging Dragons, the senior teams compete in local races across Vancouver Island, as well as across the water in Vancouver. One fortunate aspect to these races is that the host for each race provides all the boats, so teams are spared the expense of transporting their boats over great distances.

In 2013, the Canadian Championships came to Victoria for the first time and were held on Elk Lake. All three Gorging Dragons senior teams that competed finished in the Top 10 in their races and two boats, the women’s 50+ and the women’s 60+, earned the right to represent Canada at the 2014 Club Crew World Championships to be held this September in Italy.

“In Italy we'll be competing in 20 paddler boats, which include 20 paddlers, one steersperson, and one drummer," says Tom. "The 20-person boat has been the standard international racing craft for many years, although the 10-paddler boat is gaining popularity and is being raced more and more around the world. We'll have up to 30 people on our roster (including the drummer and stern) in Italy, with racing crews selected from that group to compete at 200-metre, 500-metre and 2,000-metre distances.”

One enthusiastic member of the senior mixed team is 59-year-old Gord Harvey, a Victoria native. He took to the sport naturally after a lifetime of enjoying playing various sports and spending summers on Shwanigan Lake.

“Paddling reminds me of when my dad built a kayak out of plywood, when I was a kid, and I remember paddling all around the lake," says Gord. "I started dragon boating in the spring of 2008 after a sales rep at work told me they were looking for paddlers."

"I used to watch the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival every year and always found it fascinating. So, I just showed up on the dock one day, never having held a dragon boat paddle before, and was instantly hooked. I practiced and raced with that team for one year and then joined another team that was started by a group of dog lovers, raced with them for three years until they folded, and basically spared for a couple of teams before joining VI Paddling for my third season now.”

After being part of the Senior Games gold-medal winning team in 2012 and helping host the Canadian Championships last year, Gord is back training for another successful year on the water. Like the rest of his team, he usually takes a little time off in the fall and then starts practicing one day per week in the winter and two to three times per week in the spring and summer.

They also train and exercise weekly on paddling machines the club has (similar to rowing machines but for paddlers) as well as time in the gym.

While the sport may not be for everyone Gord firmly believes it is a wonderful activity for many.

“The benefits I have received are being part of the family of paddling, keeping in good shape, travelling to new venues, and all the on-water and off-water activities associated with paddling. I enjoy paddling big time, I have made many friends and the camaraderie is second to no other sport to which I have ever been a part. I have competed in Victoria, Vancouver, Portland, Nanaimo and Port Alberni. The paddling festivals are always super friendly, fun and competitive.”

While dragon boating is truly a team sport, the success of the boat depending on every member of the team, there are a few specialized roles. The steersman or woman is the only member of the team standing up. They stand at the back of the boat and, in addition to keeping the boat moving straight down the course with their long oar, one of their jobs is to keep an eye on what all the other boats are doing.

The drummer is at the front of the boat where they can easily see the steersperson. They are responsible for communicating the pace of the stroke rate set by the first pair of paddlers by pounding out the various types of strokes. Most teams will have a starting stroke, one or more for gliding and yet another stroke rate for the frenetic finish. Communication on the boat is crucial, especially between the drummer and the first paddlers, as the drum beats should sound precisely as the two of them have their paddles hit the water. When everything is working together the results can be spectacular.

If Tom had one wish, it would be to fill up more senior boats. But there is one key component missing. He says, “We'd love to keep expanding our program by recruiting more men for Senior B and C men's and mixed teams. Recruiting men to dragon boating has been a challenge on the Island, in part because so few know that competitive opportunities exist for them. And, as we now have several athletes getting into their 70s, we'd love to help get a Senior D division going in Canada for these paddlers.”

To contact the team visit www.gorgingdragons.ca or www.vipaddling.com

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