For one weekend each summer, dragon boat teams flood to the waters of False Creek for one the largest dragon boat festivals in North America — the Concord Pacific Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival.
This year, the event was held over the weekend of June 24.
Over three days, seven or eight teams head out in heats and line up side by side in the inlet, a wave of coloured jerseys spreading across the water. The teams pause, extend their paddles forward and sink them into the still water below. There is a silence, and suddenly what was once groups of individuals in a boat is now one focused unit.
“As soon as you’re on the boat everything just locks in, everyone is awake, everyone is ready to start,” said Kris Jun, a UBC paddler and incoming vice president of the AMS dragon boat team UBC Thunder. “When the start is called, we move as one boat.”
The race starts, and for two minutes each boat glides at its own rate. The paddlers breathe and move as one. Each stroke is precise, timed, and poetic. Reach, catch, pull, exit, all the while each team members body is moving to the beat of the boat, helping to propel it forward.
Five hundred metres of speed, precision and teamwork, just with thousands of fans watching from the shore: it’s a phenomena Vancouver’s summer has come to be known for, and one that UBC’s dragon boat teams have become fixtures at. Since UBC Thunder began five years ago, the Concord event has been a staple in their summer schedule.
At this year's event, both UBC teams qualified for the Dragon Boat BC Competitive A Championship, finishing in fourth and seventh place.
The team itself, though relatively new, has a rich dragon boat history behind its founding roster. Originally a recreational team, UBC Thunder got its start when several paddlers from Eric Hamber Secondary School — one of the best junior teams in Canada — were accepted to UBC. Hoping to continue to paddle at the university level, several of Eric Hamber’s paddlers created UBC’s dragon boating club, both coaching and paddling for the team.
Once off the ground, the team secured several coaches from renowned dragon boat team One West, and continued to grow to its current capacity of two teams: the UBC Thunderbirds Dragon Boat Sport Club, who are working towards the national championship in Welland, Ontario, in August, and UBC Thunder, the AMS faction who will compete locally with the end goal of placing in the top eight at Concord and other Lower Mainland events.
Even with that high level of training and support, UBC’s paddlers are constantly up against challenges within their rosters due to the ever-changing nature of club enrolment at any university.
“Since we’re all students and a university team, our turnover every season is pretty high compared to [other teams competing at dragon boat events]. Every season is basically a brand new team; at least a quarter of the team is new, minimum, [each season],” incoming president of UBC Thunderbirds SC Gregory Goana said. “The coaches have to start from scratch [each year] because we can’t reuse a tactic from the season before.”
With that also comes an incredible level of commitment from team members to make sure the team is race-ready compared to other dragon boat teams that have a more settled roster.
“[We are] pretty much training, whether its practice or just training session on our team, seven days a week,” Jun said. That can range from practices, to extracurricular solo practices in single canoes, to gym workouts on any given day.
Though much of the work is done independently, Goana, Jun and incoming AMS club president Emily Chan explained that the level of commitment is necessary to build not only individual abilities, but to better understand one's role within a boat.
What’s more, the daily practices and workouts allow all members to feel like a part of the team and a part of the culture of family that is essential to UBC Thunder.
“It is as much about helping your teammates out by being the best you can be as it is about helping yourself out,” Jun said. “Dragon boat as a sport really fosters that sense of community that I think some solo sports especially are lacking in.”
Chan added, “Everyone is a part of something.”
That sense of community even comes out in their own races, when the UBC Thunder and UBC Thunderbirds SC face each other at different events. Though each boat strives for its own success, Goana explained that should either team ever be beaten, they both hope it is by their UBC counterpart.
“It’s a good competitive feeling if there is [one]. It’s good to race against somebody else and have that rush to beat them,” Chan said.
In the end, it is that sense of family that prevails, both within the overall dragon boat community in Vancouver, at UBC and within each team’s boat.
That even comes out in past club gear, as UBC Thunder’s sweatshirts last year proudly stated “Ohana: family over everything.”
“Dragon boat is an easy sport to pick up but a difficult sport to master. Anyone can pick up a paddle and paddle in a boat and make a boat move. But to actually make a boat move fast as a team, you really have to be loyal to your team,” Goana said. “There is no such thing as a LeBron James in basketball, or a Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer, in dragon boat.”