Paddlers Ready - By Jane Mellor


Power on Ö three Ö two Ö one Ö


This mantra, echoing across False Creek is one way of marking the onset of spring in this fair city. Headlights bobbing in the inlet dusk as early as February, cruising alongside water taxis, is another.


It is not the call of the wild, although at times it feels that way. This folks, is the call of the Dragon Boats, a tradition practiced in Vancouver since Expo í86 but whose ancient drum beat has reverberated across oceans for centuries.


I was always in awe of these long, graceful boats and finally took the opportunity to try paddling for a season two years ago. After hearing that The Dragon Ladies all womenís competitive team was looking for women to raise a paddle, I opted to try the sport again this year. I had missed it, even if it did take up a lot of my springtime leisure hours, and I found I was anxious to hit the water once again. Besides, how many Canadian cities have the temperate climate to allow outdoor water activity in January or February, and Iím not talking about hockey on frozen Saskatchewan lakes.


The Dragon Ladies, as it turns out, have a reputation for being a team of strong women with good coaching. Their reputation serves them well although much of this yearís team as it turns out, is comprised of new members like myself.


Two 1 Ĺ hour practices a week began in the dark on February 12th, and have increased to three per week as we continue to build our strength and endurance. Practices consist of warm up and technique work before finding ourselves ensconced in pause drills (stroke technique), seat pulls (two paddling at a time) and power pieces (speaks for itself). Our coach and helmsman are knowledgeable enough about paddling to teach us considerable skills, challenging us to compete at a healthy level, while garnishing enough wit and humour to keep us from mutiny. So far we have responded well.


The best thing about training is getting out on the water, rain or shine, taking in the city lights, surrounding mountains and calm inlet currents. No matter how tired I might be from a dayís work, or how miserable Vancouverís forecast, it is a rejuvenating and meditative workout paddling up and down the Creek. Add a boat full of high-spirited team members, with camaraderie enough to make ducks out of any land locked crew, and youíve got yourself a winning team.


If you havenít been to the Alcan International Dragon Boat Festival, it is a great day or weekend out with family and friends. Aside from racing events, the festival, which takes place at the Plaza of Nations, has a Food Fair with mouth-watering smells and tastes that simply canít be ignored. There is entertainment both on stage and circulating the grounds and the indoor Alcan Dragon Stand provides a wide range of interactive and educational activities for children of all ages, sponsored by local community groups. For the over 19 crowd, the Beer Garden is a welcome arena to whet your whistle after a long and hopefully warm summer day.


On the big day, competitors gather on the shores of the Plaza of Nations in their prospective tents to await race time. Up to 9 boats race in one heat and based on their finish time, are put into categories for later races. There are several team categories ranging from Novice to the Canadian Womenís National Team, Seniorís teams to Abreast in a Boat, the highly celebrated survivors of breast cancer.


Approximately 170 teams are competing this year. Teams usually race 3 to 6 times during the course of the weekend, with the race taking approximately 3 grueling minutes of concentrated grunting, sweating and, letís not forget, paddling. When each team has completed their round of racing for the day, you darn well better be hearty enough to take in a pint or two and join in on the eveningís celebrations. After months of training and two days of racing one would be hard pressed to refuse.


As for me, I routinely peel off my wet clothes following this evenings practice, and climb into a steaming tub with a glass of water and glass of wine, for good measure. It was another good practice tonight. My body doesnít ache like it did back in February as I shut my eyes, still hearing the rhythm of paddles on water. As night fades into darkness, somewhere between my pillow and sleep, I can still hear the distant echo of the paddlers refrain, "Ready and, reachÖ"


I know Iím hooked.


Jane Mellor is a freelance writer who lives and paddles in Vancouver and writes for magazines in Canada and the United States.