Dragon boat team racing: An Ottawa summer rite of passage
Ottawa has often been called a small big city. As a national capital, it is also a government town, where you or someone you know most certainly works for the public service. This can make the city rather stuffy at times, and then there’s summer with its extreme heat and humidity, and frequent risk of severe thunderstorms (which scare the crap out of me!)… [At least, Ottawa is THE place to be for Canada Day celebrations! ;-)]
Despite being a self-identified Nordic girl, myself, where cool temps and low humidity (and in winter, lots of snow! :-)) feature among my ideal climatic conditions for thriving, I have to confess summer in Ottawa is beginning to grow on me. (Especially now that I live in a place with air conditioning — a must during the sultry days of summer in Central Canada.)
This will make my 4th summer as a resident of Ottawa; however, this year, instead of my annual pilgrimage (or more aptly, “escape”) back east to weeks of (usually) cool ocean breezes, salty air, and relaxed living in the Maritimes, I am spending the bulk of my summer in Ottawa owing to the fact I will be traveling to Europe in the fall, thus deferring my holiday time.
If you are someone who longs for the return of those wintry days of cross-country skiing in the hills of Gatineau Park like me, it becomes essential (i.e., a matter of mental survival) to find a way to embrace summer as you do the cooler seasons. Summer is not going anywhere and the planet is only getting hotter, so the best way to beat the heat is to learn to like it, or at least, adapt to it.
To this end, I decided to try something different this year. Paddling. Specifically, dragon boating.
I am an avid athlete and previously (exclusively) hard-core runner (until I got injured and had to change up my training plan to usher in a long overdue age of cross-training). Despite not being a bona fide swimmer just yet (though this is still a work in progress), I have always had a special affinity for the water. Likely this is partly explained by genetics (nature), as someone who was born and raised in the Maritimes. And, maybe partly an environmental (nurture) influence as I have fond memories of care-free days spent by the seashore as a young child at the family cottage.
In my mission to embrace, or at least shake hands with, our notoriously steamy Ottawa summer season, I figured taking up paddling would allow me to build my core in a fun way (since I hate gyms), introduce me to new people I might not otherwise meet, and give me that connection with the water I crave. I had never really dragon boated before unless you count the one time three years ago when I was a last-minute alternate for a team that a running friend of mine (a steerer) was on. It had been a favor (or desperate plea?) since they needed someone in a pinch, and I was thought to be a good bet because of my aerobic fitness. [BTW, a full dragon boat crew comprises 20 paddlers plus the steersperson and the drummer, so it can be a challenge recruiting enough consistently, committed people. The boat, itself is a slim, 44-foot racer that seems to almost fly or hover above the water when great technique, timing, teamwork, and athleticism combine.] I ended up having a blast being out on the calm, sheltered waters of Mooney’s Bay under a beautiful, silvery moon during that warm summer evening. I had no technique, however, and didn’t realize that this team was actually a competitive, well-oiled machine, just days away from the big race. I think I probably splashed the guy seated in front of me with my awkward paddling a bit too much; fortunately, my relative, sometimes out-of-sync contribution could be absorbed by the predominant strength and synchronicity of the other seasoned crew members. [Interestingly — and perhaps, not surprisingly — I was not invited back to this team!? :-(]
In Ottawa, paddling is a hugely popular sport among both competitive and non-competitive athletes. My theory for this much-loved activity is that there is just something innate, viscerally compelling, even spiritual about water and our attraction to it. To revel in its space. To contemplate. To connect. And in the case of the Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival in Ottawa this weekend — to compete, or at least to have fun being on a team and giving it your best.
The relatively short, outdoor paddle season in Ottawa is a tease, however, running usually from May to October. Among our boating and paddling clubs, we have two venerable ones located within the city: the Rideau Canoe Club overlooking Mooney’s Bay in the southwest part of Ottawa and the host of the Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival, and the Ottawa Rowing Club — the oldest rowing club in Canada, boasting Sir John A. Macdonald (the first Prime Minister of Canada and founding father of Confederation) as its inaugural club president — located just below Sussex Drive in the tony neighborhood of Rockcliffe Park. I was wondering why the TH Dragon Boat Festival doesn’t rotate sites between the RCC and the ORC, but then I remembered that the relatively open, Ottawa River that serves as the waterway for the ORC can be quite rough compared to the usually gentle waters of Mooney’s Bay; as a result, the average paddler who frequents the ORC is probably fairly skilled in negotiating challenging water conditions and is necessarily an accomplished swimmer. [For a great article on rowing and the Ottawa Rowing Club, check out “Where Water Moonlights as Soul – Five Scenes from the Ottawa Rowing Club” by Jamieson Findlay and Harry Nowell in Ottawa Magazine.]
The Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival is the premier event held every June on Mooney’s Bay, and is the race that most non-elite athletes and recreational paddlers in Ottawa train for. It is the largest dragon boat festival in North America with over 200 boats entered in the weekend’s races. This year marks the 19th edition of this non-profit, charity event with an expected attendance of 75,000 (including 5,000 paddlers) over its three days of competition and entertainment.
As you may have gauged by now, dragon boating is something of a subculture in Ottawa, much like that of Ultimate Frisbee (the allure of which I never really understood). Although people of all ages, sizes, and cultures participate in dragon boating, there is a preponderance of university-aged kids and newly-minted 20-something grads who make up the majority of crews. Women, in particular, seem to be drawn to the sport (there are several breast cancer survivor and/or fundraising crews), but encouragingly, quite a few guys can be found within the mixed team crews. Since there is a certain amount of power and muscular endurance required to be a competitive crew, having a number of guys on your team is a definite asset in mixed competitions. [Note to the guys: You might be wise to look at dragon boating as not just an opportunity for a great core work-out on water, but also as a chance to meet nice, (usually attractive), fit women; one of my good girl-friends, in fact, met her husband through a dragon boat team and they are engaged to be married this summer.]
Because most people seem to be veteran dragon boaters, the newbies (and few who don’t already belong to a team) must sign up on a wait list on the Rideau Canoe Club’s website and then bide their time to be contacted by teams in need of extra members. There are recreational crews for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced-level crews; although I was tempted to at least indicate “intermediate” on my application since I am athletic and a quick learner, I knew my strength was in my lower body, so I convinced myself to err on the side of “beginner” so as to not overpromise on my skills and risk under-delivering on my performance. [If you’ve read any of my previous posts, risk aversion is unfortunately a recurring theme for me.] The accepted trade-off, of course, is that a recreationally-focused crew may not be as aerobically fit as me, nor as competitive.
I ended up joining a semi-experienced team called the Draggin’ Blades, who had recruited a few extra walk-ons to fill the spots left vacant by some of the past year’s crew. We had a weekly practice schedule of Friday nights on Mooney’s Bay with an experienced steersperson/coach. [I was surprised and delighted to learn that when you sign up for a dragon boat crew, your registration fee — which is very reasonable — includes the cost of coaching.] Our coach was great: very organized in her coaching plan for each practice, positive and extremely patient. We learned how to paddle properly, then how to paddle in sync with each other, then with tempo, all while building up muscular endurance and having fun out on the water.
We were not so fortunate with the weather, however, for our first few practice nights. On what was to be our second night out on the water as a team, we were preempted by a vicious thunderstorm, in which an 18-year-old boy was tragically struck and killed by lightning as he took momentary shelter under a tree in a nearby park, not far from Mooney’s Bay.
The week following, we had a torrential downpour (fortunately, not accompanied by a thunderstorm), but the practice proceeded nonetheless, albeit shy a full crew. Oddly enough, I enjoyed this practice. True, we got absolutely soaked to the skin, despite rain gear, but it reminded me of my days of hard-core training as a runner in Montreal when I would once in a while get caught in monsoon-like rain. These are the character-building training sessions. And, there is an unmistakable sense of pride and accomplishment — and noticeable boost in positive energy — that invariably accompanies the completion of a tough training session characterized by less-than-ideal conditions. Such character-building sessions always remind me of the famous World War II morale-boosting slogan created by the British government, that is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly in Ottawa: Keep Calm and Carry On.
After a grueling set of practices last week (one of which was a make-up for that earlier thunderstorm) and our last one this past Friday night, we were ready to throw down the gauntlet on Saturday at the TH Dragon Boat Festival.
Our first race was to be at 11h50 with staging at 11h20. Because the race is a massive undertaking, eight teams at a time are asked to ‘stage’ or line up in a corral-like area as another eight proceed to their assigned docks. While these 16 teams are in a holding pattern on shore, another eight teams are out on the water at, or making their way, to the starters’ blocks for their 500-metre ‘heat’. Approximately every 9 minutes, a race occurs until the entire field of 200 teams is processed. Each team gets two guaranteed races or heats on the Saturday: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The top 75 mixed teams and top 24 women’s teams advance to the final round on Sunday. [There are no all-men’s teams at this event.]
When I arrived on the scene at Mooney’s Bay Park an hour ahead of our race, I was met by a sea of tents and campsites (often creatively decorated), and thousands of people milling about. It was like a dragon boat version of Woodstock or a huge frosh week event at a major Canadian university. It was great! The excitement in the air was palpable (and audible) as paddlers proudly clad in their team colors and various accoutrements could be found rallying their respective teams with cheers, performing group stretching exercises in an open section of field, or sitting contentedly in a big circle on lawn chairs socializing and chilling out (and hydrating) before or after their race.
Since this was my first time participating in this event, I wasn’t sure what kind of secure storage options would be available if any, so I erred on the side of caution (i.e., the case of no secure storage), making sure that everything I brought I could wear. [Hopefully, I adopt a similar, minimalist strategy when I have to pack for Europe!] This meant cycling to the event with my PFD (personal flotation device) securely fastened to my body. [As Stacy London would say, everything was “locked and loaded” to the point I could hardly breathe!?] I couldn’t help but feel particularly ridiculous as — in order to plan on the possibility of no secure storage area — I purposefully left my bike helmet at home. So there I was, riding along the canal paths at top speed with a life jacket on, but no helmet! People must have thought I was nuts. Knowing where my priorities lay, I did manage to squeeze my tiny, compact purple, point-and-shoot Sony Cybershot into the tightly zipped compartment of my diaphragm-crushingly tight PFD, however. (I was determined to ensure I would remain afloat should our boat capsize, so I cinched that thing pretty freakin’ tight!? I won’t get into all the issues I had with PFD-inflicted chafing. Suffice it to say, it will likely be comfortable to wear when the weather is suitable for long sleeves and possibly a turtleneck sweater.)
After spending some time wandering with my camera across the grounds, taking in the carnival-like atmosphere, it was finally time for our team’s first race. We assembled in the ‘corral’ as the race officials took attendance and the teams rallied their crew with cheers, and then proceeded to Dock 5 before heading out on the water for our heat.
I was seated on the left side near the back of the boat. We began with a short warm-up of light, easy strokes then a series of 3 x 5 power strokes followed by our race pace. We then settled into our lane, hunched forward with paddles across our knees in the ‘set’ position waiting for the “Ready! Ready!” cry from our caller/drummer and then the official “Attention, please!” from the race marshal on the floating dock to our right. The final signal to go was the starter’s gun. And bang! We got off to a powerful, fast start, slicing our way through the water with our blades. All you could hear was the sound of the water against the paddles [it’s really important to avoid the dreaded kerplunk! sound, which is akin to executing a belly-flop in the pool versus a graceful dive] and the yelling by each boat’s drummer, calling out the strokes. At about 1/4 of the way into this 500-metre race, we were suddenly and unexpectedly (at least to those of us on the left side of the boat) broad-sided by an aberrant boat from the lane to our right. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next. Were we done? Did we just pick up and go? Some of us had stopped paddling completely, not wanting to ram the boat further while others continued their strokes. It felt like an eternity, but then our trusty coach/steersperson piped up authoritatively and told us to keep going. And boy, did we ever have to kick into high gear! We essentially had to repeat our start from a dead stop and rebuild the momentum we had accrued prior to the collision. We were well behind the leaders, but then something very cool happened. We started really accelerating. Powering our way through the water to catch up and pass not one, not two, but three boats! Of course, as a paddler, you must keep your eyes on the person in front and beside you at all times to ensure synchronicity of strokes (and maximum efficiency), and so as a back-end paddler I missed this drama in real-time, only hearing about it post-race. We ended up placing a very respectable third place in our heat, and were especially energized (as were our drummer and steerer) by our incredible mid-course comeback. This was definitely a character-building race, and we were excited about what we could do in our second race, having finished this heat well despite the initial setback and critical loss of time.
Instead of hanging out at the venue all afternoon until our next race — admittedly, mostly because I had no desire to use those port-a-potties! — I opted to bike back home for lunch since I only live 15 minutes away by bike and knew I had some delicious pasta salad with chicken waiting for me to replenish my glycogen stores. 🙂
Our next race was to be at the end of the afternoon at 17h10, so I made my way back to the site for 16h00. It was a long break spent lounging around or relaxing until our next heat. I had some concerns that maybe we wouldn’t be pumped enough for our next race, where you are matched against crews with similar times from the morning’s races. As before, we made our way through the staging area or corral and then down to the docks. Interestingly, this time, we were told by our assigned dock’s marshal that we were going to be on a ‘lucky’ boat, which had apparently enjoyed a disproportionate number of wins this day. She seemed so sure of her prediction, as to almost dismiss the possibility that ‘her’ boat would not come out on top again. It appeared she had issued us a challenge, perhaps there was even money riding on this particular boat, like a great thoroughbred racehorse favored to win at the Belmont Stakes.
With a few last-minute switches — I had noticed during the first race that the woman behind me had a longer reach than I did and so had asked her to swap seats with me, and then I swapped again with the woman beside me so that I could be on what was probably my ‘natural’ , more powerful (right) side — we were ready to throw down the gauntlet again.
Spying another potentially rogue boat with dubious steering [having an experienced steerer, I learned, is so important!], we made it our goal to go out hard at the start to pass them so we would not have to concern ourselves with the possibility of another mid-race collision. We got settled into our assigned lane, crouched low and forward with paddles across our knees in the ‘set’ position, and waited expectantly. “Ready! Ready!”… “Attention, please!” Bang! We were off like a Jamaican sprinter out of the blocks (or so I like to imagine it this way). We began with the usual set of six powerful start-up strokes — 1/2, 3/4 , full, full, full, full — landing them like a polished, competitive diver making a splashless, rip entry into the pool. Then it was 3 sets of 5 powerful strokes with blade completely buried below the water’s surface. The familiar 5-4-3-2-1 countdown (or mnemonic of “start-to reach it out”) next led us into our race pace rhythm of long, consistent high-cadence strokes that we had to sustain until the last 75-metres of the race, at which point, we would throw down for one final sprint to the finish line. This race felt like higher stakes than the first. The effort also felt harder and longer than the first race. Our drummer and steerer urged us on repeatedly and excitedly, shouting louder as we began to gain on the leader boats and subsequently began passing them one by one. We were almost to the finish line; it was then time to give it everything we had left in the tank. We dug in, and ripped our blades through the water for one final push. It was enough: we clinched first place in our second heat in dramatic fashion — another come-from-behind effort, and another victory for boat # 2. Our soothsayer at dock # 2 had been correct in her prediction all along and greeted us with genuine happiness as we paddled over to the dock to disembark and make way for the next team.
When we exited the boat, we were regaled with a recap of our performance as seen from the shore by one of our teammates’ friends. Apparently, we had been an exciting boat to watch as we ‘made our (tactical) move’ to surge ahead, all chronicled from the shore by the British announcer over the loudspeaker. We were told that our power and acceleration was clearly visible from the shore. [Why can’t there by an instant replay?? Or, a big screen to show the highlights of the race to the completing teams once they clear the dock zone?]
Despite our strong and exciting racing performance, we unfortunately did not qualify among the top 75 mixed teams for the Sunday finals. Normally, I would be disappointed by this outcome, as a very competitive person, but I wasn’t. I knew we had had two really good races and shown a lot of character coming back as strongly as we did after that collision in the first race.
Maybe I’m not just an individual-sports person afterall. Who knew dragon boating could be so much fun while still being competitive? I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful new summer sport for me…