Dragon boaters battle it out in a paddle war

Dressed appropriately for the brisk weather, dragon boating paddlers from Hope and the upper valley battled it out.

Dressed for the weather (front to back) Jackie Theede; Monica Cromarty; Didi Walker and Leila Jensen head out onto Harrison Lake for a Monday night training session.

Dressed for the weather (front to back) Jackie Theede; Monica Cromarty; Didi Walker and Leila Jensen head out onto Harrison Lake for a Monday night training session.

There might be some midsummer evenings on Harrison Lake, when you can close your eyes and imagine that you’re paddling your outrigger canoe off the shores of Honolulu — but if you close your eyes in the middle of a March rainstorm, it just gets your eyelids wet.

Dragon boating paddlers from Hope and the upper valley have been battling through pre-season cold, wind and torrential rains for over a decade and now some of them are adding outrigger canoeing, or “OC,” to their pre-season training.

“Right now, I’d say there are five or six groups going out on different days, about half a dozen OC paddlers from the Hope area,” said Fraser Valley Dragon Boat Club’s OC director, Greg Kohlruss on Monday. “We got our boat two years ago in March and the interest has been growing. The Cultus club has had two for longer than us. We’ll eventually purchase more.”

The club’s outrigger canoe seats six and is about 14 metres long and weighs 166 kilos. As a complete unit, including the water-repelling skirt, it cost $14,000, said Kohlruss.

Coquihalla Elementary teacher, Sara McIntosh, is in an OC group that paddles on Monday nights. She was missing from the photo session but contributed via e-mail from Hawaii.

“Our club president, Scott Farrell, gets asked if you have to be in shape to dragon boat and his answer is ‘round is a shape,’” said McIntosh. That doesn’t quite work for the outrigger canoe, as it’s even slimmer than a regular canoe. If you can easily fit between the armrests of an office chair, you should be able to take a spot near the middle. If you’re on the slim side you may get to squeeze into the bow seat.

This would be one tippy canoe, if not for the outrigger, or “ama” which is held in place by two booms or “iakus.” Even with the outrigger, it can flip when a side wave and the wrong lean combine.

“Lean left,” is the advice for beginners. Veterans seem to know that rule, from experience… a cold and wet experience.

“A lot of the time, we do a ‘huli’ practice, where we tip the boat over and practice getting back in and bailing it out,” said Kohlruss. It’s quite a procedure, as you can see in Youtube examples.

You might wonder why seemingly normal people would subject themselves to the cold water of Harrison Lake — even in the summer, let alone in the winter — but people can do crazy things when they’re on a team.

“I am totally hooked!” said McIntosh. “I started dragon boating in 2010. I have never been a team sport person but Trish Kjemhus got me to try and I was immediately hooked, even though it was raining the first few times I went out. I love the camaraderie, the exercise and the competition.

“I have never been a team sport person, due to some bad experiences in my youth but Trish convinced me that when we were all sitting in the boat, no one could tell who was paddling the hardest!

“I just started OC in the fall of 2014,” said McIntosh. “I started as a way to keep in shape and on-the-water over winter and I am hooked.  I’ve even done a race and am signed up for another.  I initially saw it as a winter thing but I will be doing OC as much as I can. I still love dragon boat, though, so I won’t be giving that up anytime soon! I must love OC, because I go out in the dark, rain and wind — even though I hate being cold!”

The club is hosting an 18K “Echo Island Challenge” on August 22, with a mass start from the beach in front of the Harrison Hotel. Kohlruss expects perhaps 15 to 20 teams to attend from the Interior, Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Washington State.

Compared to the 120 to 130-stroke 500-metre dragon boat sprints, OC races tend to be 5K or more, with paddlers changing sides every 12 to 15 strokes — something you can’t do on the wider dragon boats, which have two people beside each other.

“I expect that the fastest crews will finish in one hour, forty minutes to two hours,” said Kohlruss of the round-the-island race.

The club is offering three free try-out sessions for anyone interested in checking out the sport. You can reach Kohlruss at 604-795-6881.