The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


by Tricia Dower

A Chinese poet and statesman named Qu Yuan hurled himself into a river in 278 BC when enemy armies invaded his city. The story goes that local people, learning of his suicide, rushed out in fishing boats and unsuccessfully tried to save him. To keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat racing.

Sunday morning. A short walk from home to the Inner Harbour on yet another perfectly sunny day in Victoria. Savouring the warm breeze in anticipation of the rains that Fall and Winter will bring. Down the steps, through the crowd assembled for the dragon boat races, past the women selling pink carnations, no thanks. I find a tight space on the splintery planks overlooking the dock where the teams board their boats. Wedge myself into it, my left thigh pressing the right thigh of a young woman dressed in dragon boat gear. We throw each other tight little smiles.

The teams lining up for the next heat are all breast cancer survivors. Whoopee. I’m in time for both of the cancer heats of five teams each, something to which I would have given a pass if I’d thought to check the schedule. Women with cropped hair; parading their condition; forcing us to pay homage to their courage. Their race is delayed while the harbour water taxis – bouncy little crafts that make me think of Tommy the Tugboat – complete a hokey ballet to The Blue Danube.

The young woman says, “I’m sad today.” I must have a harmless look that inspires people to confide in me; fools them into thinking I’m kinder than I am.

“I coach a cancer team in Edmonton,” she says. “They’re racing there this weekend and I can’t be with them.” She’s here steering a mixed team, most of whom have pissed her off. “They got blistered last night. You can’t get drunk and paddle the next day. It cost me $800 for this weekend. We should have placed better.” Steering is tough, she tells me. You have to keep your boat from crashing into others, keep it straight in sometimes rough water. I figure you need good balance, too, because the steerer stands throughout the race.

Her team will be in the 3:20 p.m. heat of five teams that placed respectably mid-level but not what she hoped for. She waves the two carnations she’s holding toward the women getting into the boats. “Coaching them is an incredible privilege, they work so hard. I’ve been doing it for two years and still can’t handle losing one.” To death, she means.

I think about an artist friend who paddled with a group of breast cancer survivors over 700 km. down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. Recall her beautiful bold paintings, each evoking an emotional aspect of the journey she and the other women took through both figurative and literal wildernesses. I hadn’t considered the possibility she might not live a full life; that she could run out of time to paint everything inside her. “Survivor” means you’re okay, right?

I look at the women below in their boats, waiting to shove off for the starting point. I estimate their average age to be fifty; a good number of grey heads, some of the grey streaked with pink. Several pink wigs and boas, pink shirts under yellow life jackets, pink rubber shoes. I have never liked the colour pink, reserved as it is for the scorned gender. It takes a courageous man to wear a pink shirt.

I think about a friend in Toronto who recently underwent a double mastectomy and was fitted for her prosthesis a few weeks ago. “It sometimes surprises me,” she wrote, “how quickly I got used to having no breasts and no sense of loss about them.”

I wonder how many of the 200 women racing today are sans breasts. Part of my discomfort with this event is my suspicion that others in the crowd wonder the same thing and may discount the women as no longer worthy of inclusion into the ranks of “real women.” Do I discount them? Is that why I want them to be less conspicuous? I hate the currency that breasts represent for women. So important to our success that we surgically alter them and stuff them into uncomfortable under-wire bras to keep them looking perky well beyond their best-before date.

At the end of the second heat, all ten boats of cancer survivors nestle up to each other, forming a phalanx. They hold hands across the boats. The loudspeaker pipes out a schmaltzy song about brave hearts and the crowd keeps time with their carnations, waving them above their heads. My eyes fill. I hate this kind of manipulative shit. The young woman hands me one of her carnations – “I don’t need two.” I bury my nose in its sweet smell. At the end of the song everyone throws their carnations into the harbour. Mine makes it only as far as the dock but someone is there to scoop it, and the others that fall short, into the water.

“What attracts you to dragon boat racing?” I ask my new friend.

“The teamwork,” she says, “the camaraderie. It’s the only sport I know where twenty people do the same thing at the same time.”

I walk home for lunch, thinking about the lonely pursuit of writing. Come back at 3:20 to cheer on the hung-over Edmontonians. They finish last in their heat.

More than five years ago, Dr. Don McKenzie and colleagues of the UBC Sports Medicine Clinic formed the first breast cancer dragon boat team, to demonstrate that breast cancer survivors could regain upper body strength, that they could rejoin active life and achieve challenging goals. There are an estimated 120 such teams, now, around the world. The photo by Lightimages, is of Victoria’s Island Breastrokers.


Blogger tamara said...

Ah, how I love the dragonboating experience. My first intro to paddling as a team three years ago was with an impressive group of gals, but I remember being so impressed by the 'breasts in a boat' team. There really is a comraderie amongst those on a team of paddlers, something I had never experienced before. Graeat stuff; thanks for the post, Tricia.

Tue Aug 29, 04:06:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Pairing these two races was brilliant. This post is an excellent opportunity to learn about both.

Tue Aug 29, 03:21:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Tamara, Anna. So you were a padler, Tamara! I think I would enjoy it if I wre younger.

Wed Aug 30, 01:55:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Tricia, age has nothing to do with it. When I started I was very unhealthy, and the other paddlers were aged anywhere from 15 to 60-something. I was non-competitive and it was such a blast. I stopped only because Burrard Inlet is so filthy these days, it started making me ill. But if I were in Vic, or living near Deep Cove in NVan, I'd still be doing it. It's a blast.

Wed Aug 30, 03:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Sort of puts thing in perspective. Nice work! I just tried paddling here on the Big Island, it was pretty cool. Unfortunately they want you t commit to 5 days a week! That's crazy talk.

Thu Aug 31, 02:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve. I didn't realize we had two paddlers in the Collective. Yeah, five days a week isa big commitment. You must have found a competitive team.

Thu Aug 31, 02:33:00 pm GMT-4  

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