July 30, 2009
By Tim Simard
Each race might last a mere 90 seconds, but the dragon boat races that will occur on Lake Champlain this weekend will be fast, furious and, most importantly, fun.
A dragon boat team races during last year’s festival. This year’s event takes place on Sunday in Burlington.
The Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, now in its fourth year, will attract nearly 2,000 paddling enthusiasts in an effort to raise money to fight cancer.
This year, teachers, staff and students from Champlain Valley Union High School have formed their own team, the CVU Redhawks. It’s the first dragon boat team the high school has sponsored and the event’s cause is an important one to team captain Eleanor Walsh, a family and consumer sciences teacher at CVU.
Walsh’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 22 years ago and ever since, Walsh has embraced any fund-raiser dedicated to fighting the deadly disease.
“I’m just grateful her situation turned out to have a positive outcome,” Walsh said. “This was an important thing for me to do.”
The festival is hosted by Dragonheart Vermont, a local dragon boat organization comprised of breast cancer survivors and their loved ones. A dragon boat resembles a long canoe and can fit up to 20 paddlers. Each participant paddles in unison to the beat of a drummer, who sits at the head of the boat. Most boats are decked out with artful dragon heads in the front. The sport originated in China more than 2,000 years ago.
Each year, the races raise money for Dragonheart Vermont, as well as other cancer-related groups. This year, proceeds will also benefit Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a summer camp for children afflicted with cancer.
Dragonheart Vermont has raised approximately $300,000 from previous races. This year, organizers hope to raise $150,000 from the event, said Linda Dyer, executive director for Dragonheart Vermont.
“Not only are (racers) out there having fun, but all the money raised goes right back to the nonprofits,” Dyer said.
There will be 86 Vermont teams competing for prizes and trophies at Sunday’s event, which starts at 8 a.m. and lasts until 4:30 p.m. There are also 11 other cancer-survivor dragon boat teams from Canada and elsewhere in the United States taking part in Sunday’s races.
Members of the Vermont teams raise as much money as they can prior to race day. CVU Redhawks team member Sheila Kazak, a paraeducator at the school, already raised $200 donated by family and friends. She plans on raising even more by Sunday.
This is Kazak’s first dragon boat race and she said she’s looking forward to the competition. Two weekends ago, all the teams were able to practice once before the big race day. Kazak said she learned to stay in time with the team’s drummer, Wendy Hess.
“It took me a little bit to figure it out,” Kazak said. “I don’t really go into boats that often.”
Walsh has raced before and knows what to expect. She said everyone gets a little nervous before the races. Each team competes against six other boats across a 300-meter section of the lake near the Burlington waterfront. Most boats cross the finish line in less than two minutes. Teams get two chances to race. The fastest teams compete for a final trophy at the end of the day.
Walsh said she’s confident her teammates will win at least one of their heats on Sunday.
“What’s most important is that we stay in sync with our drummer,” Walsh said.
Kazak said she knows that even though the race times are quick, she expects the competition to be strenuous and a little intense.
“It’ll be hard, but I think of the kids at (Camp Ta-Kum-Ta) and it’s nothing like they have to deal with,” Kazak said.
The Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival kicks off on the Burlington waterfront at 8 a.m. on Aug. 2. It’s free and open to the public. Donations can be made online at www.ridethedragon.org.
Williston residents lead boat teams
Marianne Eaton, a Dragonheart Vermont representative, said 12 Williston residents are serving as captains of dragon boat teams participating in Sunday’s event. She did not have an exact number of Williston residents taking part, since participants do not reveal their hometowns when registering.
Here are the teams captained by Williston residents:
Candles & Creations
Chase Our Wake
Citizens Bank Loan Rangers
Crouching Brokers Hidden Dragons
Draggin R' Hineys
Flying Pig Paddlers
Monty's Magic Dragons