Dragon boat paddlers make their way through the Selkirk waters during a practise night. The annual Victoria Dragon Boat Festival takes over the Inner Harbour this weekend, Friday through Sunday, with races and land-based elements. Don Descoteau/Victoria News

Victoria Dragon Boat Festival gears up for busy weekend

Inner Harbour event has its roots in health, ancient tradition

Sixty-seven teams from across Western Canada and the United States will descend on the Inner Harbour this weekend for the return of the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival.

“It’s definitely one of the most competitive [races] on the island,” said Sarah Hunn, the festival’s general co-ordinator. “The larger it is, the more draw you’re going to get from more competitive teams.”

Paddlers will take to the water at Laurel Point in women’s and mixed teams, contesting 500m races on a course that is normally home to seaplane, harbour ferry and kayak traffic.

“The reason why the Victoria festival is exciting is because it’s in a working harbour,” Hunn said. “It makes for a really busy [environment] and a lot of work for on-water staff to make sure everyone is safe.”

While some Canadian dragon boat festivals have seen a decline in numbers recently, in general the sport is growing, she said.

“We had a sold-out kids camp; they’re on the water paddling all summer long. We hope that as they get a little older, they join some youth dragon boat teams.”

When Hunn started paddling five years ago in Penticton, everyone was 60 or older, and she was by far the youngest in the boat. “Now there are under-24 teams and Canada has done really well on an international level for youth teams,” she said, adding the sport’s popularity has increased as it reaches new audiences.

Each year the festival partners with the BC Cancer Foundation and since 2008, has raised more than $700,000, due in part to the Lights of Courage campaign. Thousand of festival-goers purchase paper lanterns from festival sponsors, each with a message dedicated to those affected by cancer, lighting the dock in a colourful display of hope and remembrance.

Dragon boating, a 2,000-year-old tradition, shares an interesting connection with breast cancer. A UBC research project found that the extraneous upper body exercise required for the sport was in fact safe for survivors, Hunn explained, dispelling a common myth insinuating otherwise. It also improved recovery in patients both physically and socially.

“Dragon boating is a sport that literally anyone can do,” Hunn said. “But as it gets more competitive, people want to train and do better. It helps that here in Victoria we can train year round.”

The Victoria Dragon Boat Festival runs from Aug. 18 to 20, kicking off Friday with performances from an array of local musicians and world renowned First Nations hoop dancer Alex Wells.

For schedule information, visit victoriadragonboat.com.

kristyn.anthony@vicnews.com

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