All aboard for annual Dragon Boat Festival

By Susan Green
Observer correspondent

Despite their rather ordinary appearance, Williston residents who gathered outside Burlington’s Community Sailing Center last weekend fancy themselves Brains and Brawn. That’s the playful name they’ve chosen to acknowledge the mix of educators and athletically inclined people pulling together as a team.

“I’m their manager,” says Debra McConnell, who recruited several fellow teachers and a few fitness aficionados hoping to paddle their way to triumph on Sunday, Aug. 6. Brains and Brawn will be among some 1,200 adults on 52 teams competing in the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival at the Queen City’s Waterfront Park.

The benefit event is the brainchild of Dragonheart Vermont. This group of local breast cancer survivors and their supporters formed in 2004 to maneuver a narrow, elongated canoe decorated with the head and tail of that legendary serpent.

“Four of us began with a borrowed boat,” recalls Dragonheart founder Linda Dyer, 53, of Richmond. “The sport seemed very inclusive. It became a wonderful sisterhood of breast cancer survivors paddling for recovery.”

The idea clicked with McConnell, 45. “After breast surgery two years ago, I was at a low point when I saw a newspaper article about dragon boat races in my oncologist’s office,” she explains. “I joined up in 2005 to be with people who’ve been through similar traumas and to gain physical strength. It’s been like having a new chapter in my life.”

Nowadays, in addition to practicing three times a week on the lake as part of the official Dragonheart team, she also helps guide those novice paddlers.

The Brains part of the equation incorporates Williston teachers and school administrators including Lynn Kennedy, Rachel McKnight, Jennifer Oakes, Suzy Haas, Tracey D’Amato and Amy Cole.

Brawn comes into the picture with Tarken Chase, a personal trainer and fitness instructor who’ll be on hand Sunday with five “fitness followers” he has whipped into shape.

Steve Bradish, who serves on the town planning commission, may be a governmental buffer zone between the two categories. At 67, he’s the only team member with significant dragon boat experience. His paddler credentials were accrued while living in Hong Kong during the mid-1980s.

A Quebec company has been contracted to provide eight fiberglass dragon boats, the requisite equipment and professional coaches to manage the races, which range from 250 to 2,000 meters in length. They’ll begin every 12 minutes all day long.

Twenty participants sit two-by-two in each 40-foot boat, along with someone standing in the stern to control the steering oar and a drummer in the bow to create the paddling cadence. Teams race three times, earning medals and possibly qualifying for a variety of other prizes — even one for the best team song.

A traditional “eye dotting” ceremony will be held to paint pupils on the wooden dragonheads, symbolically awakening the beneficent beast and bringing good luck. How fortuitous that Lake Champlain may have its very own denizen of the deep, the monster known as Champ.

The modern festivity dates back about 2,500 years to a Chinese ritual for protecting the populace from evil and disease. It gained momentum in 277 BC, when political reformer and poet Chu Yuan drowned himself after failing to redeem a king mired in corruption. Peasants then tossed offerings of rice into the river from boats designed to look like dragons. Belief in this mythical creature stemmed from its role as the zodiac’s most venerated sign, thought to avert misfortune.

Over the centuries, dragon boats evolved into a global phenomenon. “It is the second most popular team sport in the world after soccer,” says Dyer, a 14-year breast cancer survivor. “In Canada, it’s the second most popular sport after hockey.”

Canada is also where the notion of dragon boat races was first connected to breast cancer a decade ago. A physician in British Columbia, Dr. Don McKenzie, wanted to dispel the mistaken theory that such upper-body exercise posed a danger to women in treatment for the ailment. A team, Abreast in a Boat, was launched to prove his point.

In 2004, the Green Mountain State caught dragon fever. After a year of fundraising, Dragonheart had enough money to purchase two boats, dubbed Lady and The Champ. Recently, Dyer and her cohorts paddled to victory at a race in Montreal. “We got a gold medal in our division,” she boasts.

In Burlington, Saturday has been set aside for the Well-Healed Challenge. Invited breast cancer survivor teams from Montreal, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Vermont will take a breakfast cruise and do some dragon boat racing.

They’ll also be in the proceedings on Sunday, when boats link together at day’s end as pink carnations are thrown into the water “to honor the dead and celebrate life,” Dyer says.

The festival goal is to raise funds for a new ultrasound machine needed by the Radiation Oncology Department at Fletcher Allen Health Care.

Activities include shoreline food, entertainment, a silent auction, martial arts demonstrations and a tag sale called “DragonMart.” On the water, watch for an array of teams affiliated with organizations and businesses, from the Visiting Nurse Association to Shearer Chevrolet. Citizens Bank, the festival’s presenting sponsor, will have several teams.

Brigitte Ritchie has a dual commitment to dragon boats. As vice-president of public affairs and community relations at Citizens Bank, she helped forge the partnership between her company and the festival.

The 44-year-old Williston resident also feels a personal stake in paddling; she was treated for breast cancer three years ago. “At first, the idea of jumping into a boat with a bunch of strangers didn’t appeal to me,” Ritchie says. “Now, it’s a passion.”

Her team is the Citizens Bank Dragon Warriors. “But we’ve included the community,” Ritchie explains. “I’ve got people from United Way and the Lund Family Center, plus some customers. There’ll be five paddlers from the American Taekwondo Academy in Williston. The owner, Tim Stoll, is our team captain. And he’s a black belt!”

For more details about the festival, call 434-4423, email or visit