2004 Calgary Dragon Boat Festival

This weekend, we went for a little paddle. Five hundred metres in about two minutes and five seconds, to be precise.

This weekend was the 13th annual Calgary Dragon Boat Festival, or the Alberta Dragon Boat Racing Festival, depending on who you ask. It’s the largest in Alberta and attracts teams from as far away as Edmonton and Lethbridge (or so I gather). Most teams seem to be local.

The races take place on the Glenmore Reservoir, the only body of water in Calgary large enough to handle something like this. It’s big enough for a 500 metre course, with more than enough room to spare for the various sail boats and Heritage Park’s paddle wheeler, without causing trouble.

Alex and I arrived (still very sleepy) at 7:00 Saturday morning, to try and find the Topmade tent. Easier said than done, since there is almost no decoration at that hour of the morning of the first day. Fortunately, the club had been busy, already having hung the banner and brought in the trailer with the equipment (specifically, paddles and life jackets). There were three tables, some with food, and a huge pile of water bottles (over 2,000 at last estimate) to help us out.

The tents were set up in a block “U” shape, with Topmade in the southeast corner. Each tent was about 10 feet by 10 feet square, with a high pointy roof. Some tents were subdivided to handle the size of the teams. Some had only half a tent. There were even rumours of quartered tents.

Topmade had three entire tents.

In the tent, Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary, Alberta, 7 August 2004

There are eight teams in Topmade: Dragoneers (the competitive team), Dynasty (the semi-competitive team), DI-Hard Dragons (where I started, a recreational team), Water Dragons (another rec team), Spirit Dragons (rec), Trico Select Dragons (rec), Red Dragons (men’s team), and Phoenix (women’s team). The latter two (men’s and women’s) aren’t dedicated teams, and are comprised of members from the other teams.

By 8:00, we were all assembled and DI-Hard started its warm-up. That was a bit difficult, as the weather outside was not exactly cooperative. It was cold and raining. None of us were particularly happy about that. Warm-up not really having lived up to its name (but our muscles sufficiently loosened), we were called down to the marshalling area to prepare for our first race.

The festival was set up with the tents quite a ways from the docks. Why, I don’t know. It meant all the teams had to go up and down a set of stairs that was simply not big enough for all the traffic. The marshalling area was at the Calgary Canoe Club’s docks (which is where we sailed from). In between the tents and the stairs was the stage and beer tent, ideally set up to prevent the easy flow of competitors from their tents to the boats. (Seeing a theme of planning here?)

We arrived at the marshalling area, shivering in the cold, and told to wait in the rain while the opening ceremonies took place. We didn’t get to really see or hear them (we were just far enough way to miss it), nor did we really care at that moment — all we knew was that we were cold and wet, and it wasn’t even 9:00 yet.

Finally, the first batch of racers went out and the festival got underway. We took our place under the marshalling canopy until it was our turn to go out. There were 12 dragon boats, used in rotations of six — half out on the race, the other half loading for the next one. Ideally, not a problem. However, the weather conspired against us, and it was exceedingly difficult to stage the boats without them drifting in the wind. So the process was a little slow.

When our boat was called, we marched down to the docks and lined ourselves up for our boat. We were up against one of our own in the first race — Water Dragons (I think), which Arnold (our coach and drummer) also drummed for. For what reason, we’re not sure, but Arnold left us for the other boat, bringing in Christine from Dynasty to drum in his place. Thankfully, Topmade’s drummers are all top-notch.

Here’s the trick to dragon boating: Focus. That’s it. That’s all there is. Don’t listen to anything but your drummer and your steerer. I mean any thing. Not the birds, the wind, the PA systems, the crowd, you name it. All you should hear are instructions. That’s how you get through a race without killing yourself (or the rest of your team) wondering how other teams are doing, etc.

Christine took us down to the staging area, which is two buoys (about 20 metres) behind the start line. It took a while to get the boats sorted out, but we finally got ourselves lined up. Then the six boats slowly started forward. These were rolling starts, meaning you didn’t totally stop before “Go!” was called.

In the tent, Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary, Alberta, 7 August 2004

Normally, in race conditions, I get severe nerves. When I was on the swim team back in high school, I used to get so nervous my bladder would shrink to the size of a pea (yes, pun intended) right before a race. That’s what focus gives you — no nervousness. You pay attention to the drummer and steerer. You focus on their words, and you can actually forget what else is going on around. It’s very zen.

From the moment the first start was called until we heard “let it ride!”, I can’t really tell you what happened. We weren’t perfect, we weren’t ideal. But we won the race, one of two heats we’d run on Saturday. (A bit of a misnomer, since the festival organizers later discounted all the first heats for some unknown reason.) Our time? About 2:21.

Bonnie (our steerer) just about broke down when we got back to the docks. The wind and water currents had given her an extremely hard time. Added to the stress of the first race, she wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions, and understandably so. She, like most of the rest of us, would pile into sleeping bags and blankets to try and warm up when we got back to the tents.

So began the day of keeping an ear out for which team was being marshalled, having to run back to the tents for equipment, running back and forth from the portable toilets, and generally trying to stay warm. Just before lunch, after we’d all been in the rain and the cold far too much for one day, DI-Hard was called down again. Only to be sent away after a while because the officials were cold.

Apparently, they didn’t notice the runny noses, blue lips, and shivering bodies of the competitors.

DI-Hard’s second race was considerably better than our first, coming through with a time of 2:16, knocking five seconds off our previous time. It was good to have Arnold at the drum again. But it wasn’t good enough to win — we came second. We were beat out by last year’s grand champions. We weren’t too upset about that.

I also race for the Red Dragons, who came up later that afternoon. This was a small race, as there were only four men’s teams. (By comparison, there were over 12 women’s teams, three of whom were from the same club.) This was a race I was looking forward to. Arnold guided us through a visualization (as most of the teams did before a race) and a stretch.

We entered the lane, lined up, rolled to a start, and 2:05 later, were flying past the finish line. The next nearest boat was over a boat length behind (so I’m told).

Races ended for the day with what’s called the Beer Run. This is when a group of teams (the competitive teams, I think) race for, well, beer. A keg of it, so I’m told. Dragoneers (who had done exceptionally well all day) didn’t win, unfortunately.

Alex and I took off for home. That night, we went over to her family’s friend’s house, not far from the University. This was the family of her best friend, Rebecca, and where her father and stepmother were staying while in town. It was a chance to meet Rebecca’s parents (Rebecca is still in Costa Rica) and mutual friends visiting from Rocky Mountain House.

Dinner was awkward, but not because I was the “new guy”. It was because of a freakish little event that only seems to happen in movies and coming-of-age TV shows, where the new boy thorough screws up in front of the parents. In my case, it wasn’t because of anything that I did myself. It was because of the chair I was sitting on.

Now, I’m not overweight. In fact, I’m pretty much in line with what I should weigh for my height. But that didn’t stop the chair under me from creaking, cracking, bending, and finally breaking. It happened over a couple of seconds, so in theory I could have reacted more quickly. But I didn’t. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor, amidst a mass of shattered wood. There was no laughter, just stunned silence.

This definitely ranked high in my list of Uncomfortable Moments.

We didn’t stay too long, leaving just after 20:00. Alex and I were both exhausted from the day, and Alex wasn’t feeling very well, either. When we parted ways that night, Alex commented that she might not be able to make it out the next morning.

The phone rang at 6:01. Alex’s condition hadn’t improved much. We talked about it for a while and decided that she should stay home at least until she felt well enough to come down. Yes, there is the issue of letting the team down. Somewhere, you have to draw that line. I knew that, somehow, we’d make it without her, even if just for a while.

Sunday was cold and wet, though it (thankfully) never really rained. Running into Bonnie and Chris upon my arrival, I dropped the bomb that Alex wasn’t coming. Bonnie immediately freaked — how do we balance a boat with one less person? We couldn’t register a new person easily (though it wouldn’t have mattered — the officials never checked) and we’d be out one person’s weight on one side.

Warming up, Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary, Alberta, 8 August 2004

DI-Hard was one of the first teams up again, and we were down at the docks ready to run. It was calm, the wind having died overnight. The reservoir was glass. This was going to be a good race. Arnold lined us up, and we shifted Carrie to the other side to balance things out (how that worked, I’ll never understand).

Despite all the preparation and focus, the heart just wasn’t there. We didn’t paddle well, we didn’t have the timing, and the results showed it. We were not happy at all with our first race. Arnold tried to bolster our spirits, but it just wasn’t working.

Good news hit us not long after we got back to the tent — Alex was going to make it after all. Things had settled and she was ready to roll. She found us down at the docks as we were watching other teams display their muster.

DI-Hard’s fourth race was the one we were meant to run. It was timed, it was solid. We didn’t win, but we didn’t care, either. We knew it was good, and our time showed it — 2:15. Not much better than the previous day, but Alex wasn’t the only one feeling a bit down — Graham was also well under the weather, so probably hadn’t been able to put in his all (he has the longest reach on the team, and can use it well).

The Men’s Final came up soon after. Mark and I were already quite high from the DI-Hard’s run, so were looking forward to this one. The Red Dragons had met before the race, and discussed that we were not only going for the gold, we were going to try and break the two minute mark. It was something we all thought was possible.

I thought Arnold might actually force his larynx out from the way he was yelling. The boat moved in surges like I’d never felt before. It was so bad that my outside foot slipped three times off the support, causing us to lose time and momentum. It was probably because of me that we didn’t break the two minute mark.

Red Dragons racing, Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary, Alberta, 8 August 2004

Towards the finish line, we were all grunting in unison, powering our way through the strokes. All I could hear was the screaming onshore as teams cheered the racers on. When we finished, we all looked at Arnold for the results. All he did was smile and hold up one finger.

The high continued right up until the finals were announced. At that point, the proverbial crap hit the fan.

The festival breaks everyone into divisions: A, B, and C. Generally, the better you are, the higher you rank. Dragoneers are always A. Last year, DI-Hard was the C champion, and we were looking to be the B champion. Imagine our surprise to learn that we were in Division A…

…and our total dismay to find out we were in the Consolation race. No medals.

This sparked a huge furor in the team. How the hell could this have happened? What the hell was a “consolation race”? Hey, you did well! You did so well that we’ll let you race again just for the heck of it! To say that we were ticked off is putting it mildly. Even more so when we saw that slower teams had gotten into the medal round of Division A, and faster teams were in the medal round of Division C.

Somehow, we’d ended up being too good for Division B, but not good enough for Division A.

This is when Arnold straightened us out. According to the system, it’s luck of the draw. You race who you race against — there’s no planning aside from names drawn from a hat. If you win, you get three points; second gets two points; third gets one. Points are tallied and that’s how you end up in the race you end up in. By that measure, we were the seventh best team out of 45 teams. By last year’s rankings, we would have been the Division B winners.

No, we weren’t racing for a medal. We were now racing for ourselves. Screw the official nature of everything, we were out to prove a point: You want to come up with a completely moronic way of organizing a series of races, that’s your problem. We’re not about to be shown the door that easily. We were determined to win that race, and post a better time than some of the teams in the Division A finals.

Two teams didn’t show up for the Division C consolation. Couldn’t really blame them, either. Spirit Dragons came in second. Dynasty, a better team than DI-Hard, won the Division C finals. No Topmade teams made Division B (go figure), so we cheered on whoever we could.

Division A consolation came up, and we were back in the boat again. Arnold was there, telling us that we had already done better than last year’s festival, medal or no medal. He looked us square in the eyes and said that he’d waited for five years to get a first in the Calgary festival, which we did with the men’s team. It didn’t matter if there was a medal at the end, it was the progress that mattered. It was how we showed our mettle then that would prove how we would perform in the future.

The team had never been that focused. We ran the best race that DI-Hard probably has ever done. We were barely a second slower than the previous run, but it didn’t matter — we’d won. For that, we were happy. All of Topmade (except Arnold and the Dragoneers, already out to their final) waited for us at the top of the dock, to shake our hands. Nah, we didn’t win a medal. Somehow, I don’t think that really would have made a difference.

The Dragoneers were against the two toughest teams: Crew Yahoo and the Edmonton Dragon Boat Club. (Trico Select was also in the race, but … well, to put it as succinctly as possible, there were never in it to begin with.) For the first 250 meters, we had no idea where the various boats were (out of the three, anyway). But by the 400 metre mark, the Dragoneers were pulling away. And they poured it on.

I think we all went deaf when they crossed the line first. This was turning into a banner year for Topmade.

The Women’s final was last, but certainly not least. Sang (DI-Hard’s captain) and not quite half of the Dragoneers went for the Phoenix boat. They were up against several strong competitors, including the Magic Spindles, who had defeated Phoenix before.

There is a reason the women’s team is named “Phoenix”.

We could hear Arnold at the 250 metre mark. Although he was steering, he was yelling so loudly that it was possible to hear him over the crowd. Spindles were pouring it on, but Phoenix’s form was almost perfect. They crossed the line to a tremendous cheer. I think Alex had her ears plugged from the cacophony.

Trouble started not long afterwards. One of the boats (originally thought to be Phoenix) protested. Something wasn’t right. We couldn’t figure out why the heck we’d protest our own win. That wasn’t right. As it turned out, it was the Spindles — they’d smacked the starting gate on the way out and hadn’t had the run they wanted. They would have to race again.

Topmade jeered the announcement so loudly that you couldn’t hear the PA over the club. This was just ridiculous. These people had just poured out everything in a hard race, and because of one steerer’s mistake, all would suffer? Several of the Phoenix women were downing whole bottles of water — the ones on the Dragoneers probably felt like giving up, even if just for a moment.

The six teams went back to the start line, over 500 metres away, and prepared for the second race. (Incidentally, dragon boats always move under their own power when loaded with rowers — they are never towed.) Most of us felt for our poor clubmates — we knew what it was like to finish a hard race. But to then jump into a second one? That was torture.

The PA system cracked with the radio chatter echoing the instructions from the start line: various boats being jockeyed into position. Hangs were clasped, stomachs tightened, foreheads knotted, and breaths held. Even when the start tone sounded, there wasn’t much sound from the crowd.

There was no way to tell how the teams were doing. We could almost feel the exhaustion from the team. We all looked expectantly, hopefully, as they all crossed the 250 metre mark, almost dead-tied. The cheers started around the 300 metre mark, and rose steadily as the boats closed in on the finish line. If we could have heard Arnold’s voice over the din, it would have probably been like listening to a lion’s roar.

Somehow, all the hopes of every member of Topmade must’ve made it out to the Phoenix boat. It started to pull ahead, probably as a result of a power 10. From the 400 metre line to the finish, the gap just got larger and larger. On the first run, they had paddled with 154 strokes (yes, someone counted). On the second, 186. Despite the extra run, the extra exertion, and the sheer power required to pull off two wins in a row, the cheer from Phoenix nearly brought tears to the eyes of everyone on shore. It was a well-deserved win.

The Topmade club stood at the top of the dock, welcoming back every single paddler from the final race, handing them bottles of water (we barely made a dent in our supply). The women were happy, but exhausted. Some had to be helped away. Even Phoenix, despite their win, showed their fatigue. Even then, happiness was obvious.

Topmade cheered our victories back at the tent, and took the time for presentations of our own. Arnold, possibly the hardest-working guy in the club, and Nick, who keeps everything working (though no-one really knows how), were given carbon fibre paddles after a collection from the teams. Then all of us posed for pictures.

The awards ceremony took place at the beer tent, after the band finally took a break. It was something else to go up with the men’s team for our gold medal. There’s something to be said for having that chunk of metal around your neck that just shows you’ve done something. Mark and I both lamented that the rest of DI-Hard wouldn’t get that experience.

Topmade Dragon Boat Club, Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary, Alberta, 8 August 2004

After the awards, the festival effectively ended. It was late — about 19:30, and most of us were tired. The women in the finals had been quite giddy with what was left of their adrenaline, but even they were passing out. It was time to go home.

Despite the complaints about festival organization (poor tent locations, bad timing on the first day, and an utterly ridiculous ranking system), it was a good time. And I look forward to next year.

Especially after I modify my workout routine a bit.