Harbour traffic makes way for Dragon Boat Festival

What: Victoria Dragon Boat Festival
Where: Ship Point, Inner Harbour
When: Friday through Sunday, Aug. 10-12
Admission: Free

Paddle sports reach an apex in Greater Victoria every August, which has plenty to do with a sunny sky and warmer waters. But there’s a direct correlation between the rise in recreational activity around local waters and extensive training sessions for an annual paddling event that can be traced to the annual Victoria Dragon Boat Festival.

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“Our numbers have increased dramatically this year,” said Erik Ages, general manager of the Fairway Gorge Paddling Club, which produces the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival.

He sees the increased activity first-hand, as most dragon boat teams train for the event at the Fairway Gorge Paddling Club on Jutland Road.

“All of that activity, that active leisure that is not sitting on the couch, is increasing all around this region. Out of all Canadian locations, Victoria has the rare privilege of being able to train in paddling sports year-round.”

Canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding take a back seat to dragon boating this weekend as more than 1,600 paddlers will compete in 260 races in the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival. The three-day event, now in its 24th year, is one of the biggest of its kind in the province, and has become a popular fixture in the Inner Harbour each summer since 1994, when dragon boating debuted during Hong Kong Days at the Commonwealth Games.

“I’m very pleased that Victoria makes this kind of event possible,” Ages said. “A lot of working harbours would never allow this — not a chance, it’s too complicated. But Victoria goes to bat for this, and all the parties involved work so hard to make this a safe, fun, exciting experience. And we couldn’t do it without all the parties on board.”

Teams of 20 people compete in traditional Chinese boating races that became part of a modernized sport in 1976. Participating 48-foot boats are outfitted with decorative dragon heads and tails, a steerperson, and a drummer. Money raised during the popular event goes to the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

The sound of Chinese drums echoing throughout the harbour has become a signature part of the fundraiser, which gets right of passage amid commercial water traffic shuttling travellers in and out of the harbour. The wide swath of activity makes for quite a sight, Ages said, but the festival could not proceed without the combined skills of the Fairway Gorge Paddling Club staff, members of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, and the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority.

“All of those teams of professionals play a role in order to make it fun and safe for everybody, and to allow all that commercial activity to continue to take place. I think it’s the largest on-water event in the Inner Harbour, in terms of the square footage it takes up.

“The level of complexity running dragon boat races in the middle of a working harbour is a very unusual thing. People tend to look at it as a visual experience, but from a safety and logistics point of view, operating races every 11 minutes all weekend long is a highly complex set of manoeuvres, when you consider it is also an airport with ferries and other commercial traffic all sharing that small pool of water.”

Ages coaches two teams in the competition — one comprised of 20 year-olds, the other consisting of primarily sexagenarians — which exemplifies the all-welcoming appeal of dragon boating. In competition this weekend are teams made up of visually-impaired paddlers, cancer survivors and paddlers with multiple sclerosis.

“The barriers to entry in the sport are low enough to allow it to be one of the most accessible sports I know of,” Ages said. “We have people in wheelchairs or who have various mobility impairments, and we get them into the boat and back out again. We make great efforts to make the sports as accessible as we can.”

The festival is not all friendly hugs and high-fives, however. “At the top end, it’s very fierce,” Ages said with a laugh. “Teams have dedicated years to training, so that they can be the fastest they can.”

Team awards will be handed out Sunday during a ceremony at Ship Point. Make no mistake, teams want to hear their name called, Ages said. But the spirit of the event always puts team-building at the fore.

“What a team of 20 paddlers achieves performing as one unit is kind of like synchronized swimming, but above the water rather than under it. The more a team can work in perfect synchronicity, the faster they will go and the more beautiful it is to watch as a spectator. Watching the expressions of people’s faces at the finish line . . . that look of exhaustion and personal victory makes it all worth it. For them, it means the world.”


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