Dragonboating in Toronto

Great White North Dragonboating Championships

WRCC leads and wins the B Final Race churning down the Marilyn Bell Park Course

For the past 15 years I have watched the meteoric rise of dragonboating not just in Toronto, or Southern Ontario, but across Canada. And Canadians are very good at dragonboating. For example, at last years World Team Dragonboat Championships, which were held in Toronto, Canadian teams did very well indeed. For example, the Pemberton Laoyam Eagles won 7 golds of the 9 medals (see our write up here) available to the Junior teams. Canadian Dragonboat teams ended up steeling away almost 2/3 of all the hardware up for grabs. Note “steeling” is deliberate – the racing is very good across the country and as a result Canadians are do very well in international dragonboating competitions.

Now it is curious why Canadians should be good at a sport that is native to China and has only in the last 20 years or so grown in popularity in Canada.

OHDBC Hydrophobic Dragons – a typical dragonboat
Dragon boating is a curious sport as can be seen from the picture above. There are 20 paddlers, 1 steer-person and 1 drummer per dragonboat. The boats are all fitted with a decorative dragonhead and a lingering tail. Teams are made up of all men, all women, or mixed crews. There are age groups stretching from Juniors (roughly high school age) through to over 50 senior level teams. The sport is popular worldwide, as the World Championships had teams from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Ireland, Russia, Sweden, The UK, Ukraine, USA just among the winners.

The origin of dragonboating is traced back to 500BC in central China with the rise of the Qin dynasty during the Warring States transition period. This corresponds to the rise of the Olympic games in Greece. However, dragonboating has had a rambunctious tradition:It is believed sacrifices, sometimes human, were involved in the earliest boat racing rituals. During these ancient times, violent clashes between the crew members of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo stalks. Originally, paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water could receive no assistance from the onlookers as their misfortune was considered to be the will of the Dragon Deity which could not be interfered with.” Fortunately, Dragonboating is quite civilized now but still quite closely raced.

Watching the A Consolation Final at Marilyn Bell Park

This year the Great White North Championships were held in Marilyn Bell Park on the Lakeshore between Ontario Place and The Boulevard Sailing and Tennis Club. Just go straight down from the Dufferin Gates at the CNE Grounds through to the Lakefront and proceed to the right for half a kilometer or so – it is a pleasant walk along the lakeshore with the breakwater following the shoreline. There is a bicycle and jogging trail alongside the lakeshore which on the weekends gets pretty brisk traffic from late Spring to late Fall so the setting for the GWN Dragonboat Championships is quite attractive.

In fact as I watched the A Final Race, the last and Championship race of the day(see screenshot below), it suddenly dawned on me why Canadians are a)attracted to

and b)do very well in dragonboat racing. There is a long tradition, going back hundreds of years, with the voyageurs and fur traders in Canada for using canoeing for thousands of miles as the first transportation web in Canada. It also helps that the thread of lakes, streams and rivers across the Great Canadian Shield offers almost continuous connections from NewFoundland to the Rockies. And of course this rowing tradition shows in the Olympics where Canadian rowers, kayakers and canoers have produced an abundance of Olympic medals for the past 50 years.

Rower training among moored dragonboats
One can see this tradition because just down from Marilyn Bell Park is the Toronto Canoe Club. It is not unusual to see rowing crews leaving the waters just as dragonboat crews start their training runs. There is definitely a sense of rivalry between the canoe, rowing and kayaking communities to see who will do better in international competitions. Just ask any elite dragonboat team if they steal ringers from the rowing or kayaking community … danger, danger, do not attempt this unsupervised.

B Final Start of the Race
So one would expect the GWN races to be pretty competitive and spectators were not disappointed. The times were hovering around 2:10 seconds going into the final heats. Now to put that into perspective, the World Record for 400metres in swimming is 3:40 by Ian Thorpe of Australia, but remember swimmers get to re-launch themselves off the wall every 50 meters. The World Record for the 500 meter dash is Italian Donato Sabia’s 1.00 minute flat time.

Missing from this years GWN were two-time champions Sudbury Chiropractic who had just won on August 28th the first inaugural Canadian National Championships in Calgary with a clocking of 1:58.92 for 500 meters. However, one could see that the wind was up and the times were slipping down as the day advanced. For example, in the A Open Consolation Final, the Canadian National Women’s team, prepping for the World Championships in Sydney Australia from September 20-23rd ,were two seconds slower than their mid-afternoon time in finishing a fast closing second at 2:09:53. So the final race of the day the A Open Final figured to be a bit slow but very competitive.

However, the race turned out to be very different from anticipated One team, Miller Genuine Dragons managed to set a pace despite wind and water turbulence

Genuine Miller Dragons have a half boat lead in the A Open Finals
that the other teams could not match. At the races end Miller Genuine Dragons were in at 2:01.27 nearly four seconds ahead of the Imperial Dragons. Normally, the racing gets closer as you reach the top rated clubs. Also rough water and headwinds tend to compress the field again. So this was a victory well worth noting.
Also worth noting was the monies raised for the Big Brother and Big Sisters charity at the GWN Championships. Each year, GWN sponsors a charity and helps to raise funds with a variety of events during its two day run. This year over $50,000 was raised for the Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Finally, the move to Marilyn Bell Park provided the event a little more stretching room and new vistas. Previously held just a kilometer east at Ontario Place breakwater, races had to held up for the navigation of pleasure boats up and down the breakwater channel. No such problems this year, and as you can see from the pictures, there is a new view and venue for GWN – it will be interesting to see how the event changes over the next few years.

New Views at GWN

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