"Together!" coach Natasha Bowlby shouts over the splashes of 20 paddles slicing in and out of the water.
"Together! Together!" she chants, keeping the pace as the 12-metre (40 foot) dragon boat surges forward, skimming swiftly over Lake Minnedosa, its 20 paddlers synchronized in unified strokes.
It’s a perfect evening for the Brandon Blaze Dragon Boat Team to train under the cerulean blue Manitoba sky.
The Westman team shares the love of dragon boating among great athletes world-wide, with a participation rate of 60 million paddlers in 64 countries — it’s becoming one of the fastest growing international sports in the world.
Dragon boating dates back 5,000 years to China, the dragon being the ancient ruler of the rains from the heavens, as well as the rivers, lakes and seas.
While they’re not paddling down the great Yantze River in China, the Brandon Blaze train with the same passion on the beautiful lake just outside the town of Minnedosa. It’s a favourite recreation site in the summer and is considered to be one of the best sites for competitive paddling in Canada, being the venue of choice for the 1999 Pan Am Games.
"It’s the perfect location," Bowlby said. "We used to practise on the Assiniboine River in Brandon but the flood of 2011 forced us to change location. We’ve been training here ever since and couldn’t ask for a better place.
"This lake is nice and long, and is ideal for practising racing for various distances. It also offers a great vantage for dragon boat festivals our club hopes to initiate in the future."
The sport typically involves 22 people: a steersperson, 20 paddlers sitting in pairs facing the bow (front) of the boat, and a drummer who keeps the paddlers in stroke throughout a race using the rhythmic beat of the drum to indicate frequency and cadence of the paddlers’ strokes.
Coach Bowlby issues the commands to the crew from her position as steerperson for the Westman team.
The Brandon Blaze have been training for five years in the Westman area. Bowlby has been involved in the sport as coach and competitor for more than 11 years, both here in Manitoba and in Nova Scotia, her native province.
"Dragon boating is a great way to get in shape and meet new people. We have both men and women come out from Brandon and the surrounding communities on a regular basis," she said.
"We’d like to encourage more people to consider dragon boating as an alternative to their regular exercise program. It’s a lot of fun and you really learn what it’s like to be part of a team sport that is enjoyable for all ages, fitness levels and abilities."
As it’s a sport that works the entire body, it would also be a great supplement to regular training for members of the Canadian Forces from Shilo and Brandon area, Bowlby said.
"Many people think that dragon boating is associated with the Canadian Cancer Society and allows only cancer survivors as team members since the Cancer Society’s dragon boat festivals are hosted in various communities across Canada to raise funds for the fight against cancer," she said.
"We welcome cancer survivors; however, we are not a "survivor team" as such — we are purely a recreational team for any and all who would like to be part of a great sport, no experience necessary."
The team starts dry land training and pool paddling in early spring and hopes to get out onto the lake by the first of May.
"Anyone can join at any time in the training season or come out to Minnedosa Lake for an evening for just $10 drop-in fee to see what it’s all about," Bowlby said. "We also welcome group sessions for staff barbecues, youth groups, birthday parties and family reunions. We provide all necessary equipment."
The Dragon Boat Teams starts training in early May each Wednesday from 6:15-7:30 p.m. until the end of September.
For more information contact Natasha Bowlby at email@example.com