The Gorging Dragons won’t be fooling around on April 1 when the 2016 Club Crew World Championships get underway in Adelaide, Australia.
The Victoria-based Gorging Dragons feature several Comox Valley dragon boat paddlers, among them Raymond St. Denis.
St. Denis was paddling with the local Prevailing Wins team and in October of 2014 the coach of the Gorging Dragons was recruiting new paddlers from up and down the Island.
“This is a competitive team and I was quite interested. They talked about going to the Canadian nationals to compete and they really appealed to me.”
The Club Crews event is one of two world dragon boat championships, held on alternating years. The other is the World Nations Championships. St. Denis, a “newbie” to dragon boat racing, got into the sport 20 months ago and his competitive nature has him looking forward to the Club Crews in Adelaide.
The Gorging Dragons are sending four teams to the event. They will be racing from April 1-3, with men’s, women’s and mixed teams that will see many paddlers compete in several races.
The Gorging Dragons are part of Vancouver Island Paddling. “Dragon boating is considered one of the world’s fastest growing team sports, with more than 50 million participants worldwide, and more than 250,000 in Western Canada alone,” the VIP website notes.
The Gorging Dragons have competed in – and done well at – several world championships. The World Nations only accept one team from each country in each age category while the Club Crews allow each country to send up to five teams in each category.
“(The Club Crews) are looking for the best teams from across each country,” St. Denis said. “In order to qualify you have to go to national competitions. We went last year and all our teams qualified (to go to Adelaide),” he said.
St. Denis said there will be some 126 teams in Adelaide, making the event a true sporting spectacle. While the Canadian teams will be competing against American, Germans and Australian entries, St. Denis notes there is not a huge field in his Sr. C (60-plus) age group.
“In Sr. C just about everybody is racing on two teams,” he said. “We have quite a few women doing double duty – women’s, mixed and likely open.”
On the first day of racing the teams will tackle two 2,000m races. The second day will see three 500m races and the third day will present the 200m races, with each Gorging Dragons team team doing two or three of each.
St. Denis says that busy schedule is fine with the paddlers. “If the races are properly spaced, your body stays warm and you actually paddle better.”
Most courses can accommodate up to eight boats per race, and St. Denis notes races are won or lost by thousands of a second. “The more boats there are the more exciting it is,” he said.
The 200m and 500m races are straight sprints, while the 2,000m races involve doing the 500m course twice. “The turns are really exciting,” St. Denis said.
While the boats start together in the shorter distance races, the 2,000m boats are sent out in 10- or 20-second delays (according to their ranking).
“There’s so much strategy (on the turns),” St. Denis said. “It’s my favourite race. It’s a gruelling race though,” he adds. “You feel so accomplished to finish.”
Times to complete the races vary depending on age group, with the Sr. C boats taking about 10 minutes to do the 2,000m, two minutes for the 500m and under a minute for the 200m.
“You just go flat out,” St. Denis said. “The rule is you put everything on the water. You don’t come in with game in the tank.”
Each boat has 20 paddlers along with a tiller and drummer. “The tiller is extremely important in the 2,000m race because it’s very strategic. The drummer is important as he helps to set the pace and keeps track of boats that are coming up to you.
“They relay messages from the tillers. If someone’s catching up we pick up our pace. As we get close to the end they tell us when to sprint. We have different commands along the way.”
Most of the Gorging Dragons paddlers are already in Adelaide, and St. Denis notes several will stay Down Under after the competition to see family and friends or tour that part of the world.
He says Canada is one of the strongest dragon boating nations in the world, and adds those wishing to follow Canada’s progress at the Club Crews can do so via live streaming on the IDBF website (www.idbf.org).
While the Gorging Dragons train weekly in Victoria, there is also gym work in their hometowns. “When we’re peaking we are in the gym five days a week. As we taper it’s three days a week. That helps our bodies to recover so we’re raring to go when we get there, and will help to overcome jet lag,” St. Denis said, noting the 18.5 hour time difference.
True to his competitive nature, St. Denis has put his name in to try out for the national team this fall, which has its sights set on the 2017 World Nations in China – the home of dragon boat racing.
St. Denis says the Gorging Dragons coaches assist athletes hoping to make the national team and says he will probably be travelling to Vancouver for most of his training sessions.
“The beauty of dragon boating is it’s a really demanding sport, but it’s not really hard on the body. I have a fair amount of damage from playing soccer and broom ball and track and field, and my body is paying the price for it now. But (dragon boating) is not a lot of impact. You have to be tremendously fit, it’s a sport that’s quite demanding physically. But it doesn’t take a toll on your joints. It’s one you can do till you’re 90.”
Other attractions are the many age groups and recreational or competitive levels, and the physical fitness. St. Denis will be turning 62 this year and says he has never felt better. “I’m in the best shape I’ve been in my life. I’ve always been active, but I’ve never been this fit.”
St. Denis was working out in a gym when a member of the Comox Valley Prevailing Wins dragon boat team and asked him if would be interested in the sport.
“I said I kayaked a little bit and was considering it but didn’t know much about it. He invited me to come out. They give you four free (sessions), they supply the paddle and the life jacket, there’s no financial commitment. If you like it and decide to continue you buy your own equipment.”
Those interested in dragon boating can contact any of the following local clubs: Hope Afloat Comox Valley at firstname.lastname@example.org, Comox Valley Blazing Paddles at 250-334-3503 or 250-334-2034; Prevailing Wins (adult) and Dragon Riders (youth) at email@example.com