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Racing With Dragons



From top: A drummer yells for the paddlers to pick up the pace during a race in Ottawa; Dragon boats raise money to fight breast cancer in Toronto; a team and its dragon in the nation’s capital.

The starter gun sounds. Half a dozen huge boats that had been sitting motionless on the water explode into action. Two dozen paddles per boat slice the water in unison. Slowly at first, then faster and faster the boats pick up speed. The fierce-eyed dragon heads tipping the prow of each boat seem almost alive as the boats drive forward to the throb of drums and chants of the paddlers. Shouts from thousands of people standing on shore cheer them on. Are we standing on some faraway Asian shore? No, chances are you are in Canada. From the Pacific to the Atlantic and even in locations like Lethbridge, Alta., Winnipeg and Saskatoon, Chinese dragon boats are rearing their scaly heads.

Dragon boat racing is believed to predate even imperial China itself. Legend has it that in the third century BC, a poet philosopher by the name of Qu Yuan tied a large rock around his neck and threw himself into the Miluo River in southern China to protest government corruption. Local fishermen tried to save Qu Yuan by racing their boats to the spot where he jumped in but they were too late. The fishermen beat drums and gongs to scare the fish away from his body and threw rice wrapped in silk into the water as an offering to his spirit. When Qu Yuan’s spirit later appeared to his friends, it said that the rice had been devoured by a huge river dragon. Because dragons controlled the summer rains which were important to agriculture, the spirit said they should make an annual event of racing their boats and throwing offerings of rice to keep the dragon happy.

The races were held on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese month when dragons were thought to be crankier than usual and needed a rice offering to fend off drought. Because the 5th Chinese lunar month occurs between late May and mid-June on the Gregorian calendar, most of the important dragon boat races are still held during that time of year. Over the centuries, dragon boat racing spread across southeast Asia as it followed Chinese merchants who put down roots in Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and even Japan.

Dragon boats come in various lengths but the “classic” craft is roughly 40 feet long and seats 24 paddlers plus one drummer and one steerer. The paddlers face forward; the drummer sits at the front and faces backwards. In ideal cases, the number of paddlers are a multiple of 12, the same number as the symbols in the Chinese zodiac.

Dragon boat racing officially arrived in Canada in 1986 when Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Society brought six authentic dragon boats over from China to help celebrate Expo 86, the world’s fair. Dozens of volunteer teams were formed to race the boats in the ancient Chinese tradition.

By that fall, hundreds of people had caught dragon fever. Racing enthusiasts banded together and by the summer of 1989, Canada’s first self-standing dragon boat festival opened in Vancouver, and it has been running ever since. This year’s dates are June 16-18.

Anita Webster is one of the festival’s organizers. She says there are many reasons why dragon boat racing teams were formed. “Because this sport depends on teamwork and not superstars, it often appeals to people who do not excel individually at other sports. For example, we get a lot of junior paddlers who may have not made their high school teams but once they are aboard a dragon boat they get a chance to shine.”

Webster says many teams have been formed to promote health issues. “Our races have included sight challenged crews, organ transplant recipients, dialysis patients and mental health survivors.”

The Vancouver festival has been attracting more than 90,000 people and more than 180 dragon boat teams from across the lower mainland and around the globe. This is good news for dragon boating and for tourism.

Finding teams to compete in the festival has been the easy part. In 1988, there were very few dragon boats in Canada, and the Chinese Cultural Society in Vancouver was swamped with requests to borrow its half dozen boats. Each request was carefully considered because the boats were considered heritage treasures. It was also noticed that the local weather was hard on the Chinese boats which were made of wood and designed for warmer temperatures. Finally, because the average Canadian is somewhat larger and heavier than their Asian counterparts, when a full team of 24 paddlers climbed aboard, the boats were often dangerously overloaded.

These factors all called for the same solution: made-in-Canada dragon boats.

Enter Vincent Lo, a Vancouver real estate agent who had emigrated from Hong Kong in 1974. As manager of the False Creek Women’s Dragon Boat, he became frustrated with the long waiting list to borrow a boat. That’s when he decided to make his own. “Up until that point, the only boat I had ever built was a cedarstrip canoe,” he says. “For the prototype, I basically enlarged the approximate lines of a traditional wood dragon boat, to make it safely displace enough water when fully loaded with large paddlers.”

To survive Canadian weather, Lo used fibreglass instead of the traditional teak. “A teak boat cannot be left out in the water in the colder months because the cold and the moisture will ruin it. Secondly, a teak boat weighs around 1,700 pounds while a fibreglass one is 800.”

As word of Lo’s boat-building skills spread he soon found himself shipping made-in-Canada dragon boats to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New York, Nevada and even Florida. Ironically, to help Canadian teams compete in Asia, he has had to reverse engineer some of his craft. “When someone holds a dragon boat race, it is the responsibility of the organizer to provide the boats for all competitors so when Canadian teams travel to Asia, they must use the traditional smaller boats.”

Although some North American teams have experienced difficulties racing overseas, Lo’s False Creek Women’s Dragon Boat team is not one of them. So far it has competed seven times in the prestigious Hong Kong International Championship and has won gold five times. “The first time it was quite a shock to the organizers,” he says. “It would be like a Hong Kong team winning the Stanley Cup but now Canadian teams are recognized as some of the best in the world.”

Considering the relative newness of the sport, the sheer number of dragon boat teams in Canada is remarkable. Many team names reflect a certain amount of whimsy with monikers like Crews Control, Gung Haggis Fat Choy, The Bod Squad, Acquaholics, Flying Shanghai Noodles, Dragon Behind, Draggin Butts, The Tragically Quick and We Need a Beer Sponsor.

Other team names reach for something spiritual. In Montreal, Mark Takeda belongs to Isshin, a Montreal dragon boat team primarily made up of Japanese Canadians. “Isshin is a Japanese word that roughly translates to ‘one heart, one spirit, one mind’. Dragon boat is really the ultimate team sport, as synchronicity is probably the key for success. When the team was formed and named, it was thought to be very apropos for a dragon boat team, especially with Japanese roots.”

It is a sport anyone can learn, but getting through a race, giving everything you’ve got, can be exhausting. Race distances range from 100 to 6,000 metres, with just about everything in between. The most popular distances are 250 metres and 500 metres. “Many times, after a tough 500-metre race, I and some other members of our team have given so much that we cannot even get out of the boat for a few minutes following the race,” says Takeda. “Shorter distances are very physically demanding, while longer distances require a great deal of mental toughness. When we do 2,000-metre races, our coach usually tells us to take the first 500-metres like we were doing a 500-metre race. That leaves us pretty exhausted, with three quarters of the race still to go. You don’t think that you can actually get through the remainder of the race, but you know that you’ve done it before, and you know that you can’t possibly stop paddling and let your teammates down. Having the drummer at the front of the boat yelling at you doesn’t hurt either! Dragon boating has definitely taught me to push myself beyond limits that I thought I had.”

For Takeda and his teammates, Isshin is a year-round commitment. “During the off-season, we train indoors, both in the gym and at the indoor paddling pool. Our dry-land training changes slightly from year to year, depending on who our coach is, what our goals are for the upcoming season, and what our team needs most, i.e. more cardio work or more strength training.”

Despite that level of dedication, the competition is fierce and that will be the case at this year’s festival, July 22-23. “There are a couple of elite teams, then a bunch of us a small notch below, quite close together,” Takeda says. “Among those teams, there is usually less than a second or two difference when we race, sometimes down to a few hundredths of a second. I would put us anywhere from third to sixth best team in Montreal, depending on the day.”

For other teams, winning or losing is irrelevant. Besides pumping boat loads of cash into a hosting city’s hotels and restaurants, dragon boat festivals raise money for charity. In Ottawa, the 2005 festival raised $175,000 for local charities. This year’s festival, slated for June 24-25, is expected to raise more money by attracting 4,500 paddlers and more than 60,000 spectators.

In Pictou County, N.S., the Race on the River festival raised $115,000 for breast and prostate cancer and local sports. This year’s dates are Aug. 11-12 in New Glasgow. In Barrie, Ont., the festival raised more than $285,000 which was shared by 44 organizations, including the local library that organized the festival. This year’s festival is slated for Aug. 26.

One of the most remarkable new developments to dragon boat racing around the world is the huge number of teams made up of breast cancer survivors and their supporters–and it started in Canada. In 1996, the Abreast In A Boat (AIAB) team entered the Vancouver festival as the brainchild of Dr. Don McKenzie, a specialist in sports medicine at the University of British Columbia. “Up to this point, women were discouraged from undertaking any form of repetitive exercise or activity, including knitting!” says Joan Creighton, a current member of the AIAB team. “Dr. McKenzie recruited 24 women (all breast cancer survivors) to participate in dragon boat training to prove that repetitive upper body exercise did not cause lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm and upper body. Not one woman experienced lymphedema as a result of her dragon boat training.”

From its very first appearance, the public reaction to AIAB was overwhelming. “In June of last year we celebrated our 10th anniversary by holding the first breast cancer festival in Vancouver. Ten Years Abreast attracted more than 60 teams from across Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Italy and Poland,” Creighton says. The website lists more than 100 Canadian dragon boat teams. Of these, 55 of them are affiliates of AIAB or inspired by them, many with bold names like Bosom Buddies, Breast Friends or Chemo Savvy.

Creighton’s favourite part of racing is the camaraderie. “I think coming through the archway of paddles that traditionally greets all paddlers after a race is always a thrill since whether your crew has won that particular race or not you know you have given your all. As Dr. McKenzie says of any breast cancer dragon boat event ‘Our real race is getting to the start line’.”

Toni Lucklow belongs to Busting With Energy, a cancer survivor team based in Saskatoon. The team started after Saskatoon breast cancer survivors were invited to watch the Vancouver races. Returning home, a team was organized and in 1999 it raced for the first time.

However, racing on a river is a different experience than racing on a lake or ocean. The Saskatoon races were cancelled in 2005 because of weather. “Our river was so high and dangerous last spring that we couldn’t practice….”

But even when conditions are right, paddling against a current takes dedication. “It is quite a workout, especially during practice sessions when our coach makes us haul a tire or a cement block behind the boat….”

Alexis Yam, race chair for the Toronto festival, says this year’s event is expected to attract more than 200 teams with five to six thousand competitors from around the world. We estimate that at least 125,000 people will be on hand to watch the 122 scheduled races. No other festival has so many people watching so many races all in one single area. We are expecting teams from all across Canada, the United States plus some from Europe, Hong Kong and the Philippines.”

The festival was created by the Toronto Chinese Business Association as a way to strengthen and showcase Chinese heritage. Although they have succeeded beyond all expectation, there is an ironic twist. On one hand, Toronto and all six of its Greater Toronto Area’s Chinatowns burn with dragon boat fever in the weeks leading up to the festival. On the other hand, Toronto’s Dragon Boat festival has become a very multicultural event with activities from many other heritage communities. “Throughout the weekend, we have dances and musical performances from South Asian, Eastern European and South American participants,” Yam says. “We also have the Multicultural Village which is a pavilion featuring crafts and children’s activities from around the world. Even the majority of the dragon boat teams are multicultural.”

The Toronto races are expected to be especially well attended this year because 2006 is the festival’s 18th year and to the Chinese, the number 18 is considered particularly auspicious for wealth and prosperity.

As we head into May, teams around the world are already flexing their muscles, getting ready for the June 24-25 festival. Past participants have included teams from Bay Street bankers, the Metropolitan Toronto Police and the gay community.

One wonders what Qu Yuan and his river dragon would make of all this?

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