The Thrill of the Race

2,000-year-old activity is now the fastest growing aquatic sport in the world, and the Valley is no exception

Dragon boating is all about teamwork, as these members demonstrate. When the dragon boat moves through the water it should look and move as one entity. A dragon boat race is won or lost in the timing of the team—as a result, buy it exemplifies human connectivity and teamwork on a level comparable to few other sports. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

I remember the first time I tried dragon boating. It was a chilly and drizzly early evening on False Creek in Vancouver. As I donned my PFD and walked toward the boat with my fellow paddlers, I admit I wondered if this was a sport for me. I mean, these people go out on the water even when it’s cold and raining. Who does that? But it didn’t take long for the allure of dragon boating to become apparent. The thrill of moving a very heavy boat filled with 21 other people, all of us paddling in unison, the boat cutting through the water and the spray from the paddles splashing our faces—it was magical. All too soon my 30-minute introduction to dragon boating was over. I climbed out of the boat and onto land, soaked yet stoked to try it again.

Dragon boating has a long and rich history. The origin of the sport dates back 2,000 years in ancient China. Apparently, the first dragon boaters were superstitious villagers who would race on specific days to encourage the rains that were needed for their crops. To the Chinese villagers, the dragon was the symbol of water, so racing in boats decorated as dragons was a way to appease the creature thought to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rain.

Today, dragon boating isn’t conducted to encourage rain, but it is conducted to encourage fitness, fun and friendship. Dragon boating is the fastest growing aquatic sport in the world, with more than 50 million participants worldwide. In fact, dragon boating has something for just about everyone. It is a sport that provides an adrenaline pumping and exhilarating full body workout for people of all ages, skill levels and physiques. Even people who never thought of themselves as athletes can find a place to thrive on a dragon boat.

Dragon boating is all about teamwork. When the dragon boat moves through the water it should look and move as one entity, not a boat full of 22 individuals. That’s because dragon boating is not about individual skills—everyone in the boat must work together and paddle in perfect unison to move the boat effectively and efficiently. A dragon boat race is won or lost in the timing of the team. In fact, timing, pacing and form are more important than brute strength when it comes to dragon boating. As a result, dragon boating exemplifies human connectivity and teamwork on a level comparable to nothing else.

Modern dragon boats are 48-foot long canoe-like vessels. During races, the boats are usually decorated as dragons, with ornately painted carved heads and tails. Most boats weigh more than 300 kilograms when empty and can weigh more than two tons when filled with a standard team. Most teams consist of 20 rowers as well as a steer-person, or cox, who controls the boat from the rear, and a drummer who sits in the front.

Though dragon boating originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, it was introduced to Canada at Expo ‘86 in Vancouver. Since then, the sport of dragon boating has grown tremendously. There are now more than 250,000 dragon boat participants across Canada, where most major cities host a dragon boat festival, and many of the larger Canadian communities have a dragon boating club.

The Comox Valley has dragon boated for more than 10 years. In fact, our community boasts six dragon boating teams. Flying Dragons, Blazing Paddles and Hope Afloat are the women’s teams; Dragon Flies and Prevailing Wins are mixed teams; and Dragon Riders is the youth team. The six teams share four boats which are moored at the Comox Bay Marina. The marina is also where team members meet to begin their weekly practices.

Leon VanNoorden is the team captain and recreation coordinator of Prevailing Wins, a dragon boat team that has raced in the Comox Valley for the past decade. “I really like the philosophy behind dragon boating,” says VanNoorden. “We are only looking for each member to work at their ability. Strength isn’t the issue. Such a philosophy is much more accommodating to people as they are.”

Though all inclusive and accommodating, the members of the Prevailing Wins team still take their sport seriously. “People still need to practice,” VanNoorden says. “To take part in a race our members need to be able to paddle through the entire race. To get in good paddling shape our members need to do other things to take care of themselves, such as walking, biking, spinning, or going to the gym.”

Three members of the Prevailing Wins team have now joined VI Paddling’s Gorging Dragons team, based out of Victoria. These enthusiastic paddlers even travel to Victoria every Sunday to practice with their southern teammates. And as members of the Gorging Dragons team they will travel even farther—to Adelaide, Australia in April of 2016 to take part in the World Crew Dragon Boat Championships.

The inclusive team philosophy that permeates the Prevailing Wins team has helped them to be successful as a team and also to become very close friends. “Our members have really gelled as a team and as friends. Our team has become a family,” says VanNoorden. “We’ve become such good friends that we do other activities together besides dragon boating, such as holiday gatherings, picnics and fundraisers.”

The Prevailing Wins team raises money for team expenditures, but they also raise funds for their youth team, the Dragon Riders. “Creating a youth team has been part of our team mission statement for a while. We felt that we had gained so much by being part of a dragon boat team that we wanted to find a way to give something back to the community. Creating a youth team seemed like a good thing to do. We think dragon boating is a great sport for kids to become involved in. Some kids may have difficulties in normal team sports, but most kids can fit in on a dragon boat team.”

Practicing in Comox Bay. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Practicing in Comox Bay. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Jeremy Lister has been the captain of the youth team for the past three years. Lister got involved with dragon boating four years ago when he visited a dragon boating tent that was set up at the Highland Games. “They were trying to find new members for their team,” recalls Lister. “I decided to try it out and I enjoyed it a lot. From there I just kept going. The next year I was asked to be team captain.”

Lister believes that dragon boating is a sport that would appeal to many young people. “Pretty much anybody—people with all sorts of personalities and physical abilities—can pick up a paddle and have fun,” he says.

Though the youth team is all about having fun, there is a serious side to the team as well. In fact, they are a very competitive youth team that has successfully completed many events, often placing in the top ranks and mostly against adult teams. “The kids love the races but they’re incredibly good at them too,” says VanNoorden.

Currently, Dragon Riders is recruiting new members between the ages of 14 and 19. “We always need more people,” Lister says. “We go out once a week on Monday evenings from 5-6 pm. We provide the life jackets and the paddles, so all you have to do is show up.”

Jenny Miller is a member of one of the local women’s teams, Blazing Paddles. Dragon boating, she says, is a sport more people should try. “Dragon boating is great fun on the water. We all love the exercise and camaraderie that dragon boating gives us. And we have become a very close knit team. We have bonded very well. And the festivals are great fun!”

Blazing Paddles is also looking for new members. “We are trying to recruit new members, if possible,” Miller says. “And though we are a team of mainly retired women we are open to anyone over 18. We just ask that members make it to at least one practice each week. We practice two times a week; Wednesdays at 4pm and Sundays at 10am.”

Besides the competitive portion of the team, Blazing Paddles also offers a recreational, non-competitive team, for those who would like to get out on the water, but aren’t interested in racing. “Anybody who wants to paddle is welcome to join,” says Miller. “It’s a fun paddle versus a serious paddle.”

If you are interested in trying out the sport of dragon boating you can stop by the tent that will be set up at the Comox Marina launch ramp on April 23 from 11-3. No previous experience is necessary as full training will be given on the day. The boats will be ready to go, and paddles and PFDs will be provided—so be ready to get in the water and have a great time.

For more information on the mixed or the youth team contact Dwayne at 250-339-3499 or by email at [email protected]
For information on the Blazing Paddles women’s team contact Jenny at 250-334-3503 or Phyllis at 250-334-2034 or visit