Dragon Boating in Vancouver

By guest blogger and HI employee: Cara Kauhane

The Dragon Boat festival is one of Vancouver’s most anticipated multicultural events. Dragon Boating originated out of Southern China more than 20,000 years ago. It is traditionally done at the annual festival of Duanwu Jie. Now, Dragon Boating is an extremely popular international sport.

This festival melds the two together beautifully: beginning with the blessing and eye-dotting ceremony on June 15th, preparing the racers for their task.  Taoist priests come to perform the ritual, honouring the religious and cultural roots that helped to make the festival today possible. After the races is entertainment, featuring an on-stage array of musical styles and influences. And then there is the Silk Road Food Festival, including dishes from not just China, but Greece, Thailand, Jamaica, and Mexico, among others.

Since I was curious about how the paddlers experience the festival, my friend Todd Wong, coach of the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team, graciously agreed to let me join in on one of his practice rounds. On a sunny but windy Vancouver day we took to the boat sporting dragon scale designs. A dragon boat is like a long, narrow canoe, and can hold up to 40 pairs of paddlers sitting side by side. The boat we would use was about half that size. 

I don’t mind admitting I was nervous—I have never been good at sports, preferring to keep my 90 pound, 5 foot self out of the way, reading, while exercise happened to other people. Some teams recruit only the biggest, fastest, and strongest, to give them that extra edge in competition. But Wong’s team, Gung Haggis Fat Choy, is different. “We do this for fun and fitness,” said Wong. A Canadian man of Chinese and Scottish ancestry, Wong’s first priority is to promote multiculturalism and an inclusive attitude. He renamed his team in 2002 to Gung Haggis Fat Choy (the team originated as Celebration Team in 1997) to commemorate and fundraise for his multicultural events and dinner of the same name. I personally know Wong from participating in a poetry reading that he organized—since we both come from mixed race families, we were able to find much in common. The members of his team hail from all over as well: France, China, Holland, and Malaysia, to name a few. Not to mention an impressive array of ages and experience; one couple even brought their two girls, 8 and 9 years old, respectively, to join in on the practice. When asked, the girls said they had done dragon boating “lots of times”, and enjoyed doing it. This made me feel a bit better.

However, this by no means meant Wong would go easy on us. Paddling correctly isn’t merely done with the arms—it’s a full body sport, with most of the movement coming from the core. He showed me how to position my weight correctly, to a point that I was almost leaning over and outside the boat, keeping my rowing arm high overhead, plunging down, but pivoting with my hips to create the movement. We were practicing for sprint paddling, meaning we needed to take short, powerful, and perfectly timed strokes, leaning forward and exiting at the knee. Timing is truly everything, and the greatest challenge. If one person is out of time, Wong informed me, he or she is effectively attempting to move a 20-person boat single-handedly. There can be no show-offs in a dragon boat team. If you want to win, all the paddlers must move as one. After this quick lesson and a few stretches, we were on the water.

Since it was my first time, I was seated at the very back, since most newbies tend to splash a lot. Despite my earlier disdain for all things physical, I was astonished to find myself in the boat, arms pumping furiously, eyes on the lead paddlers, trying to keep correct time, death grip on my paddle, all with a ridiculous smile on my face. As busy as I was, I could still appreciate the spectacular view as we headed from the Olympic Village, seeing ourselves reflected in the giant silver golf ball that is Science World, rising up from the blue-grey to jade green waters. As we passed under the Cambie Street Bridge, I saw the newly renovated BC Place settled between the downtown skyscrapers, long spokes poking out like a crown. And of course, the North Shore Mountains, blue and peeking out in the empty spaces, still capped with snow.

Meanwhile, Wong made us hustle hard, picking his way through the couples of rowers, correcting holds or strokes. He shouted encouragements, occasionally yelling “backs” or “fronts only”, to give us times to rest. An hour and a half later, my sleeves were soaked, hands frozen, back sore, but still strangely elated. These must be endorphins! Who knew?

The usual fees to join a team is about $100 for a year, with extra fees at competitions, but Wong says certain teams in Vancouver are open to travellers for practices, just like what I dropped in on. Hostellers can also rent boats from the Jericho Sailing Center, which is a literal minute walk away from our HI-Vancouver Jericho Beach hostel! After this experience, I definitely think it’s worth saving up for and trying.

For now, I can’t wait for the Dragon Boat Festival. I’ll be content to watch, but knowing how they’re pushing themselves, I’ll definitely be cheering on all the teams—but especially Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

Image credit: Flickr user *jer*

Author: Backpacker Buzz

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