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August 01, 2015

Dragon boats

Annual festival draws thousands of participants, spectators

Jacqueline Louie

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The ancient Chinese tradition of dragon boat racing continues to flourish in Calgary. Dragon headed boats, drumming, dotting the eyes of the dragon, and racing on Glenmore Reservoir will all come together in a celebration of Chinese legend and tradition, August 22 – 23 in North Glenmore Park.

“For the Chinese community, it brings an opportunity to showcase a unique aspect of Chinese culture,” says Shane Martin, co-chair of the Calgary Dragon Boat Society, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organization that hosts the annual Calgary Dragon Boat Race & Festival. “Dragon boating is an ancient tradition born from the Chinese culture, and as part of our festival we celebrate the Chinese culture. For the Chinese community in particular and for Calgary in general it’s an opportunity to celebrate that culture, and for Calgarians to get involved in a great physical activity.”

The Calgary Dragon Boat Race & Festival showcases lion dancing, Chinese musical and cultural performances, and a blessing by Buddhist monks in a ceremony as the event begins.  

The event typically attracts 1,500 competitors; and nearly 5,000 spectators, who can attend for free. In addition to watching the races, people can enjoy a variety of entertainment, including a band and multicultural performances; food trucks and a beer garden.

Since there is very limited parking at North Glenmore Park, event organizers are asking people to park their vehicle at Mount Royal University, and then take transit into the park. For those who choose to cycle, there will be a bike storage area set up.

This year, organizers are capping registration at 70 teams. The majority of racers are from Calgary, with the rest of the teams coming from across western Canada.

The Calgary Dragon Boat Society makes things easy by providing the 10 boats that racers use: five boats purchased in China five years ago, with help from provincial and municipal grants; and five boats rented from the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival. (Over the winter, the society stores its boats at South Glenmore Park, and during paddling season, from May to October, the boats are stored on the water at North Glenmore Park).

For Calgary dragon boat paddler Marc ‘Chewie’ Richea, dragon boat racing has been a passion for 13 years. 

Richea, who paddles for the Dragnum Boat Club, describes dragon boat racing as ‘the ultimate team sport.’ “You have to work together as a team to paddle at exactly the same time, and apply power at the same time,” he says. “The other thing is that it’s co-ed, which is nice.”

According to Richea, to be a good dragon boat racer, you have to practice a lot. Teams that are highly competitive will practice twice a week, while other teams will typically practice just a handful of times before the festival takes place.

At the same time, this is a sport that’s open to people of all abilities. All ages can participate in dragon boat racing, from mid-teens to seniors. Another bonus, Richea adds, is that “it’s a very cheap sport to get into. Generally, all you need is a T-shirt, shorts and waterproof shoes.”

 Each boat seats 20 paddlers. Each team races at least four times, with five boats racing at once, while a second set of boats is getting loaded and heading out to the start line. 

A very good competitive team will do the 500-metre sprint course in two minutes or less, while a recreational team will typically complete the course in two-and-a-half to three minutes.

“Dragon boat racing requires a very high level of physical fitness and strength to do it well,” notes Martin, who has been dragon boat racing for nearly 15 years, and competes with Calgary’s Dragnum team, as well as internationally with the Canadian national dragon boat team. 

 “One of the great things about the sport, is that it really is inclusive,” he adds, noting that people of all skill levels can participate. Teams that take dragon boat racing seriously train year round and compete hard to win. “And some teams just want to have fun with 20 of their friends in a boat.”

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