Raise a Paddle

Dragon boat racing grows from ancient beginnings to popular watersport…

Who could ask for anything more?  I get to do what I love, and have a great view at the same time!”  This from Bev O’Hara, a woman who took a leap of faith in November of 2009 when she transformed a small room in her Union Bay home—overlooking picturesque Baynes Sound—into Just Like Mom’s Bakery.

“I’ve always baked,” says O’Hara with a laugh.  She holds her arm out to waist height from her short frame:  “Since I was this high!  I baked with my mom, so it’s something that’s been a constant in my life, but it’s only recently that I ‘came out’ as a baker, so to speak.”

Now 56, O’Hara grew up in Kyle, Saskatchewan.  Her first trade also had her working magic with her hands—as a florist.  While in her early 20s she started a small greenhouse and sold the plants she’d grown, plus ran a flower shop.  Under her green hands that small shop bloomed into a large commercial business in the 20 years she ran it.  When she decided to sell the business, O’Hara hired on as the production manager of a similar operation in Saskatoon.  She worked there annually from January to July, overseeing the growing of their plants, and although she enjoyed the work, missed her own home in Kyle.

When she heard of a dude ranch close to Kyle that was looking for a cook for their summer season, O’Hara took on the task.  “It was an easy job for me,” she says.  “I had to provide three meals a day of good farmhouse cooking, and the guests ate what was offered—there wasn’t a menu. It suited me well, and of course, baking was an intrinsic part of the daily fare.  I did that for five years, but it was the winters I grew tired of.  I began to look online for work in BC, on the coast and lo and behold, there was a job for the curling club in Campbell River.  I was the concession manager and catered to banquets and parties and anniversaries, that sort of thing. That was a winter job, of course, but after one winter on the coast, I decided I wasn’t going back to freezing cold Saskatchewan winters.  I worked summers in a fishing lodge for a while, then the Campbell River Golf Club.”

After four years in Campbell River O’Hara met her partner, Franc Charpentier, another small business entrepreneur who runs a cash register company.  O’Hara moved to Union Bay and she and Charpentier decided to buy a mobile coffee van.  Home-made goodies were a natural addition to complement their drinks. As the coffee business was usually for special events and festivals, which tended to fall on weekends, O’Hara was also cooking for The Pier Pub in Comox.

Laughing, O’Hara says it was an accident that led to her launching Just Like Mom’s into a business on her own as a baker.  A colleague she met and worked with at The Pier, Kevin Munroe, decided to open his own bistro-style restaurant, The Mad Chef.   O’Hara was going to be his partner in providing baked goods, breads, buns, ciabattas (a special pizza-style dough that’s crispy on the outside and bubbly and soft on the inside) and so on.

“When I went into the new building with Kevin, we took one look at each other and said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’  The kitchen is far too small for a baker and a chef.  I looked into the possibility of baking somewhere else and supplying Kevin that way.”

After checking out available rental space and weighing the costs of converting a space into a bakery, which seemed too expensive, “Kevin had the brainwave that I should cook from home,” says O’Hara.  “I thought about it for a while, talked in over with Franc, and found out what the health requirements would be, and decided I would give it a go.  We converted a room in our home that had been full of junk into this bakery.”

Since that decision, O’Hara’s compact bakery has been providing an ever increasing number of local businesses with buns, breads, scones, cookies and brownies.  Showing canny business acumen, O’Hara also began to offer home deliveries.

Her face lights up as she describes a part of her business that is obviously close to her heart.  “There are lots of older people who don’t want to be baking for themselves, yet they’re used to home baked food.  We now have a number of seniors who order from us.”

She smiles as she explains more about this unique part of her business.  “Quite a few of our customers don’t get out a lot, so when we arrive with their order, we’re perhaps the only people they’ve talked to that day.  We’re more than happy to chat with them for half an hour or so.  A woman who now lives in California came up for the Olympics, and came over to visit her mother in Union Bay.  She saw one of our fliers and asked us to start making deliveries to her mom, who was thrilled!  We think our home deliveries are really important.

“We take half a dozen buns or cookies to lots of people,” says O’Hara.  “We ask the order be at least $25, but that’s easy to get to, and people put some products in their freezers.  We think it’s a really nice service to offer and our customers appreciate freshly baked food.  We take orders into Courtenay every morning to The Mad Chef, The Coffee Love Bug, Brambles Market and The Pier Pub, so we add the home deliveries in. We’ve recently started supplying The Royston Shell and the Union Bay Market with scones and cookies too.”

O’Hara’s baking sounds extremely creative.  “I make scones for The Coffee Love Bug and began to try out different ingredients.  I make a Greek Goddess scone with lots of feta cheese, avocado and basil pesto, a Mediterranean Goddess with feta cheese again, spinach, and olives and a Southwestern with peppers and havarti cheese.  It’s great fun—I think of a cool name and mix tasty ingredients together.  I make berry scones too, of course, cranberries, apricot and oranges, blueberry and lemon, and cinnamon and raisin scones.  I have a basic buttermilk recipe that I adapt to whatever I think will be tasty.  I use yogurt in my sweet dessert scones, too.

“I get lots of good ideas from Kevin,” O’Hara adds.  “I’m going to try a smoked buffalo scone and my husband came up with a good idea—The Couch Potato.  It’s going to have beer, cheese and potato chips.

As O’Hara’s grandson is diabetic, she’s been experimenting with baked goods that are suitable for people on restricted diets, although she doesn’t plan to make gluten-free doughs.  “That requires more space,” she explains, “as there has to be a special place only for gluten-free flours to be used.  The flour can’t be contaminated with anything else, and other people provide that service.”

Although scones and cookies are the most popular items O’Hara bakes, she’s pulling out a tray of plump bread buns from the oven as she speaks. “I make breads and loaf muffins too,” she says.

“This business suits me down to the ground” she adds.  “I’m not an early-riser baker.  I don’t like getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and this way I can choose my own hours.  If I want to start a batch of bread at 9 o’clock at night, I can do that.  While things are cooking I can putter about my own house or do something on the computer.”

O’Hara point to a gleaming stainless steel bowl and mixing arm. “I just recently invested in a small commercial dough-mixer,” she says.  “My other ones were smaller and, besides, they’ve done me great service for 25 years—I didn’t want to over-tax them!”

Such is the success of her home baking that O’Hara is contemplating moving her business to a larger shed on her property.  “If I had someone else to help me with preparation, I could make more items, I could make cakes and so on, but this space is too small,” she says, gesturing at the space around her, which is approximately 3×4 metres.  “I made a special birthday strawberry cheese cake for a Union Bay man and he said ‘Oh, you’ll be getting lots more orders for these!’  But I’m not set up for it.”

“Although.” she continues with a gleam in her eye. “we experimented with doing lots of canning and preserving last year, and that might become another branch of our business.  There’s any amount of people who grow too much food to eat in the season and either don’t want—or don’t know how—to can and preserve their produce.  And again, lots of older people who grew up preserving their own food and making their own pickles don’t feel able to undertake that task anymore.  We could offer that service, perhaps.  If somebody wants to buy cucumbers when they’re in season and cheaper but doesn’t want the bother of pickling them, we could help.”

For O’Hara, working at home is the icing on the cake.  “I love working at home” she says.  “I’ve always had my own businesses, and although I might make more money working for someone else, this is great.  I mean, who could ask for anything more?”

To order Dough to Door deliveries from Just Like Mom’s contact Bev O’Hara at 250-335-0239 or visit, where O’Hara’s current menu is on display.

Poor old Qu Yuan, Sildenafil
an ancient Chinese statesman (475-421 BC), pharmacy
was something of a hard-luck case during his own lifetime. Yet he left a legacy that is celebrated throughout much of the world today as the fastest growing water sport on the planet—dragon boat racing.

Qu’s connection goes like this: He had been banished from his state of Chu by a corrupt king.  Then he learned of the impending invasion of Chu by a neighbor state.  This was too much for him so he tethered himself to a rock in a river to commit ritual suicide as a protest against the invasion. The good people of the kingdom rushed into the water in their fishing boats to try to save Qu, but it was to no avail.  So, they beat drums and splashed water with their paddles to keep evil spirits from his body.

Ultimately Qu Yuan’s legacy in China ended up being commemorated century after century on an annual basis by boat races that take place on the anniversary of his death.  The boats are traditionally long and narrow canoe-style vessels decorated with carved heads and tails of dragons, which are held to be the rulers of the rivers and seas.

The Comox Valley Dragonflies at practice. The Dragonflies are one of six teams in the Valley.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Eventually the dragon boats spread beyond the confines of China and the races have now annual events in some 40 countries.  And, as many Comox Valley residents—at least those that ever find themselves near local waters—know, dragon boating is very much a facet of the local scene.

In British Columbia, dragon boating is part of the legacy of Vancouver’s Expo ‘86.  At that event the Chinese delegation brought with them six teak dragon boats.  From that grew the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival, the first of its kind nationally, thanks to the efforts of David See Chai Lam and Milton Wong.  This was the first dragon boat race/festival outside of Asia, created as a showcase of Vancouver’s growing cultural diversity and to promote racial harmony and cross cultural understanding.

A decade later Dr. Don McKenzie of the University of BC, in conjunction with physiotherapist and breast cancer survivor Dr. Susan Harris, formed the first breast cancer survivor dragon boat team in Vancouver.  Their intention was to prove that upper body exercise has a large role in recovery from breast cancer and lymphedema because it can improve the range of motion, reverse muscle atrophy, stimulate the immune system and activate skeletal muscles.  The only criteria for becoming a member of a breast cancer survivor team is having had a history of breast cancer.

Since that time dragon boating has grown immensely in popularity, with breast cancer survivor teams being a part of all festivals. In the Comox Valley the breast cancer survivor team, and the first dragon boat group on the local scene was Hope Afloat, which was formed in 2001 in conjunction with the Comox Recreation Commission.

In the case of Hope Afloat a group of women in a support group were discussing full-time return to work after having completed their cancer treatments.  It was at that meeting the topic of dragon boat racing came up.  As it stood, the nearest option for getting involved in the sport was in Nanaimo.  This was hardly practical for women who were working.  As it turned out, four local women were involved with the mid-Island team. They were contacted and the wheels were set in motion.  Within a few months, thanks to the support of Valley businesses, service clubs and individual donations, enough funds were raised to purchase the Valley’s first dragon boat.

From that first purchase the concept of dragon boating took off in the Valley.  Hope Afloat gifted their boat to the Comox Recreation Commission, which agreed to make it available to other groups who were interested in getting into the sport.  The rest of the tale is, as they say, history.

There remains, however, says Christine Saunders, Comox Valley Dragonflies team manager, a widespread assumption that dragon boating is still confined to breast cancer survivors (though they remain integral to the sport).  Many teams, like the Dragonflies, are strictly recreational.

The Dragonflies team (the oldest in the Valley after Hope Afloat) was formed in 2002.  The Dragonflies compete in approximately four to five events through the racing season, and primarily compete as a mixed competitive team.  However, they have also raced in a number of women’s festivals through the years.  The Dragonflies are one of six teams in the Valley, including the original Hope Afloat team.

Going back to the beginning for the Dragonflies, and for Saunders, it all came about due to an ad placed by Comox Rec in which they asked if anybody was interested in a dragon boat, as the Hope Afloat boat was now available for other user groups.

“I phoned and then went to a meeting in January of 2002,” she says. “There were a good 40 people there and I became a member of the first team.  We had a 6-16, which is the standard dragon boat worldwide.”

Part of her personal motivation, Saunders says, was that she felt she needed to get involved in some sort of a sport, mainly because she needed the exercise and wanted to do something that appealed to her.  Since she was raised by the sea, she felt that something to do with the water would work for her.

“I’d never been particularly active in sports,” she says.  “I like to say I’m a great spectator, and when my kids were growing up and playing baseball or soccer I was always out there to cheer them on.  But, I wanted and needed something for me.”

Right from the beginning she found it to be a fine fit for her.  It was a good group of people to be with and the sport demanded team solidarity in that all must pull together.  People get tight with one another—figuratively and literally—in relatively short order.

“For us it’s basically recreational,” she says. “There is the competitive aspect and we have achieved a considerable degree of success, but essentially we go out to be on the water and to have fun.  One of our biggest challenges is to get more men involved.”

A further misconception about dragon boating (the first being that it is confined to breast cancer survivors) that Saunders would like to set straight is that it is not exclusively a female endeavor, but decidedly calls for gender mixed teams and they are, she says, always trying to attract men to the sport.

Many men, Saunders adds, believe that dragon boating is strictly a female involvement, and at a certain level females must predominate.  There are no exclusively male teams, but in any of the major competitions in which they have been involved, such as Victoria and Nanaimo, the biggest section is the mixed group.  And, of the 20 people on a team, at least eight must be female.

As for the physical aspects of dragon boating, Saunders describes it as “a wonderful sport.  It’s whole body exercise,” she says.  “While it creates certain demands on the novice it doesn’t take long to adjust to the stresses of the sport.”

She notes that Fitness Excellence in the Valley offers dragon boat training and that it’s a good idea to take that sort of training, especially in the winter, before the season begins.

“Winter is definitely a good time to get started,” she advises, as competition season isn’t the best time to learn, so it can be a bit disappointing for the newcomer since the others on the team are more advanced.

Part of the allure, Saunders says, is the sense of solidarity that comes about from the experience. Everybody must be able to rely on everyone else in the boat.  There is no hierarchy in that regard.

“The speed of the boat comes about from everybody paddling as one,” she says. “Everybody must hit the water with their paddles at exactly the same time.”

While the Dragonflies initially used the boat made available from Comox Rec they have, since 2007, had their own boat—a boat with a special legacy and of which the team members are very proud.

It came about when team member Monica Greenwood and her husband, Mel, donated the boat in memory of their son, Stephen, who had died in a car crash four years earlier. The boat is a BuK, which is built in Germany and is a crème-de-la-crème craft of the sort that has been used in many international competitions.

But, the Dragonflies boat is even more than that, Saunders says. The boat has been enhanced by the talents of local artist Robert Lundquist, who endeavored—after listening to the Greenwoods’ story of their son—to bring his spirit to life as represented by the boat.  Appropriately, the boat is called Stephen’s Spirit.

Team solidarity is of course everything, and aside from having the boat that they cherish so greatly, the Dragonflies deck themselves out in T-shirts that follow the design of the boat.

“With our team we knew we needed a good blend of personalities, and that’s what we have,” Saunders says. “We have 20 people plus a drummer.  Once we join up we make a definite commitment, but we know that we all have other things going on in our lives, and that has to be respected.”

During the season they practice twice a week for an hour and a quarter, and in the winter, come rain or come shine, or sleet and virtually everything but heavy winds, they practice once a week.

There is a definite process that must be learned and a participant’s skill can only improve with practice, she says.  The paddlers in a dragon boat face forward (unlike aft-facing seated rowers) and use a specific type of paddle, which is not connected to the craft in any way.  They paddle canoe-style with a very distinctive paddle type.  The leading paddlers set the pace for the team and it’s essential that all paddlers be synchronized.  Each paddler, Saunders says, should synchronize with the stroke or pacer on the opposite side of the boat.  That is, if you paddle starboard side, you take your pace from the paddler on the port side.  Meanwhile, the two pacers in the bow set the pace for the rest of the paddlers.

“We truly have to be a team,” Saunders says.  “There are no star performers, just a group of people literally pulling together.”

Currently their team quotient is good, Saunders says.  A number of new members have come out, which is good since five or six members left within the past year.  And, as always, they are seeking more male participation.  As far as age is concerned, there is no upper or lower limit, though participants should be physically mature due to the strength demands.

“Right now I believe we range in age from about 30 to 70 years,” she says.

This fastest growing of water sports on the globe is seconded only by outrigger paddling, which uses the same strokes, and the teams are often mutually supportive, says Saunders.

“The primary difference would be that outriggers are suited for long distances, whereas our greatest distance in competition is 500 metres,” she says.  “CORA (Canadian Outrigger Canoe Association) held a competition in Comox Lake last year, and our team supported theirs in that competition.”

What appeals to Saunders and many others in the sport is that it’s not encumbered by regulations limiting the involvement of its members.  As an example, she will shortly be going to Victoria to race with another team and she observes that the teams change from one race to the next.  At the same time, competition, such as the BC Seniors Games (Comox Valley and Campbell River, September 15-18) and festivals like Nautical Days in Comox bring out the apex of team spirit.

For the Seniors Games, Saunders says, she’ll be on a mixed team, along with seven other members of the Dragonflies.  She further notes that for competitions in other centres they do not, due to difficulty of transport, take their boat with them.  Which, she admits, is too bad in one respect, but the logistics have to be respected.

“It all truly stirs the spirit,” she says.  “I’m looking forward to Nautical Days and the Seniors Games in the early fall.  We’ll be there and loving it.”

For more information on the Comox Valley Dragonflies visit

For breast cancer survivors who would like to be connected with Hope Afloat, go to