After a stiflingly hot week we were predicted a downpour for the weekend, this would have been very welcome if it weren’t for the fact that we were planning on heading up to Oxford to spend a training session with the Oxford Paddlers for Life dragon boat team, my first visit to another team.
It poured down overnight and the next morning the clouds remained ominous. We were all up early and on our way to the city of dreaming spires, on the way the rain was of and on and the clouds looked full, no sign of those clear blue skies we were after!
As we found our way to the church, where we were to leave the car, the rain stopped, so it was dry as we took the scenic walk to the pub where the Oxford Paddlers kept their boat. A short wait whilst the Iffley Lock opens to allow a boat to move through and we were back on our way, a very scenic way I may add…
As we crossed the lock the smell of lavender from the garden of the lock keepers house was powerfully strong, it was all so idyllic I will definitely be going back to explore the area further on foot.
Arriving at the pub we were met by the lovely ladies of the Oxford Paddlers for Life, a quick introduction, donning of buoyancy aids, warm up exercises and we were ready to move the boat. The Dragon boats aren’t kept on the water, they need taking down to it and they are heavy and cumbersome. It takes manpower and direction to make sure this long boat gets to the water without anyone ending up in the stinging nettles or knocked into the river. All hands on and we’re off….
Finally we are on the water and numbering off, always good to know how many are on board when you leave, just to make sure you have the same number when you return!
It was a lovely session, helmed by a very capable young lady, Esmee, who took us through a number of exercises. Some pause paddling, evolution paddling, pyramids, some focusing on technique and so forth. It was a nice selection of exercises, not too taxing and interspersed with a bit of sightseeing, as they point out such things as the boat houses for the local University boats teams and Christ Church Meadows. It really is lovely to see the world from a boat, the movement and the sound of the water is really very calming. We may sometimes be going full pelt and putting all our efforts in to moving the boat as quickly as possible, at which time the scenery is a blur, as we have heads up, but are focusing on the strokes to make sure we are all in time, but there are always moments to just take it all in, if only for a wee while.
We did see one poor lad, who was out rowing, came a cropper and capsize his boat, so we stopped to make sure he was okay – probably more embarrassed than anything – before continuing up the river. To be fair the weather was such that a cool dunk in the water was not quite as awful as it could have been and he was quickly back to land.
It looks form the map as though we went a fair distance, but it felt like we were only out for a short time, but that always seems to be the case when you are enjoying yourself, messing about on the water. I’m hoping these are all ladies we will see again at future events, maybe they will come down to visit us in Wraysbury. We may not be able to promise such picturesque surroundings, but we will always have the warmest of welcomes there.
Training this Monday was not the usual affair, not by a long shot, to such an extent that I didn’t even get out on the water, but instead spent most of the time in the kitchen of the clubhouse. The reason being that this was to be an end of term Dragon Boat Experience for a local Cub group and Sarah and I were doing the catering for the Hurricanes who were there to run the event.
It was the perfect, hot summer’s evening, for such an event, with not a trace of the rain that had blighted us a few days earlier, but not quite so perfect when you are trapped in the kitchen with the ovens on full blast!
Along came a whole pack of Cub Scouts, with parents and siblings, ready for an evening on or beside the lake. Buoyancy aids were dispensed, instructions given and the Cubs loaded on to three boats, each with a helm, coaches and drummers – one of which was my son, who was most amused at being asked to drum, given his inability to even clap in time to a song!
Despite all reservations he did well and had a fantastic time drumming for his boat. Then once the races were run, the boats were brought back in, Cubs unloaded and the boats taken off the water and put away, before the team returned to the clubhouse for pizza and cold drinks. Of course the Cubs were brilliant and made the most of the opportunity to get in the water and lark about. I’m not sure how wet they got whilst out in the boats, but before they left most had ended up paddling or swimming in the lake whilst watchful parents looked on, probably jealous of the cooling water! It was great to see them just having fun mucking about in the water and hear the laughing and fun they were having.
Sadly being on kitchen duty meant I didn’t get to see most the evening’s event, but I really didn’t mind a jot, as it was a chance to give back to a club which I feel has given us so much, made us feel so welcome and so much a part of their team. That’s one of the reasons I have come to really love Dragon boating, the sense of community, working together and enjoying the company of some of the nicest people you could hope to meet.
Oh, I will admit, the pizza was not homemade, it was courtesy of a Costco run, but we did knock up a decent salad and I baked cookies and chocolate fudge cake for afters, which seemed to go down quite well!
Despite a couple of wet and miserable days we awoke today to a drier, brighter day than expected. A good job too as this afternoon was to be my first experience of racing in the dragon boats and a warm, sunny day will always be more preferable to a rainy one – although you get wet whichever, so rain wouldn’t stop us!
Usually there are only enough paddlers for one boat to go out, but today the team were joined by the Purple Warriors. This is a group of either serving or retired members of HM Forces who have some form of disability or impairment as a result of their service, but don’t let that mislead you, they are formidable!
Fortunately they decided to mixed the teams up, so it wasn’t all them against us. It doesn’t matter if you are paddling with people you’ve never met, we are all in the same boat both literally and figuratively, the aim is the same and the camaraderie is part of what makes dragon boating such a fantastic sport to be a part of.
We were only on the water for an hour or so, but we managed to get three races in and each was great fun and close finishes, not being competitive I wont mention that our boat won two of the three…
As I’ve probably mentioned before, the great thing about this sport is not only is it a great form of exercise, but the people are there lovely, to which end when we get back on dry land the usual routine is to get the boat out of the water and safely stored away, a cool down and stretch and a chance to ‘Hug a Hurricane’ – a group hug. Then we are back to the clubhouse for food and a drink, this time, thanks to the Purple Warriors, it was a barbecue. Sitting with friends and family, in the warmth of the sun with a cold drink and a plate of food, what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon….
During training I’d heard people mention the Vogalonga group and it meant nothing to me, to be honest it took a while before I was clear on what all these different groups were and where I fitted in. I knew the team we trained with were the Hurricanes, and to do so we had to be members. Then there were the breast cancer survivor group, eventually a name was decided upon for that, we were the Paragons. So who were the Vogalonga group??
Turns out ‘Vogalonga’ were a group of ladies who had already committed to go to Venice to take part in a 32km rowing regatta, called the Vogalonga. This regatta has been taking place every year since 1975, it’s a non-competitive race which takes place as a protest against the growing number of powerboats which are active in the area and which are causing damage this amazing city.
It never occurred to me that this would affect me in any way, other than there was another group of ladies who were also new to dragon boating, until one day I was asked if I wanted to join them. Of course not, I can’t do that. I’ve got work, I couldn’t afford to go, I haven’t been paddling long enough, I couldn’t go somewhere like that without my boys, oh, and I Hate flying.
Returning from the morning’s training I met my husband down at our allotment and told him about this invitation. I’ll admit I was laughing about the preposterous idea of me going to Venice, but he wasn’t. I was instead met with the response I really wasn’t expecting – go, why are you even thinking out it, just go, you’ll love it! Oh sod, back to my promise, my promise to try not to say no to new opportunities, I said yes.
Within a couple of weeks we had booked our accommodation and flights, our team leader had arranged hiring a boat and helm in Venice and we were committed, or perhaps we should have been committed! We all upped our game, instead of just practising on a Saturday morning we tried to also fit in extra sessions during the week, some even bought their own paddles. But then another realisation, in the hour or so we were out on the water we would cover anything up to seven kilometres…… the Vogalonga is thirty two kilometres!! That’s not on a relatively flat lake but on canals with lots of other boats and in open sea with the waves and wash of motorised boats. Panic, well maybe a little.
Despite the nerves I made it onto the flight, got chatting to the poor soul next to me, jealously coveted her glass of Prosecco and before we knew it we were landing – Hello Venice!!
We were lucky to get a few days of sightseeing, eating and perhaps the odd glass or two of wine. It really is quite a beautiful place to explore, especially after you’ve got the hang of jumping on and off the vaporetto!
We made the most of the time, visiting the usual tourist traps, including the islands of Murano, Burano, St Marks Square and the Biennale Arte, an art exhibition this year titled May You Live in Interesting Times – that we do!
I try not to be too much of a tourist, but I’m afraid you cannot help but snap away with the camera, it is too beautiful to not try to capture in a photo, or two….. or more.
Soaking up the atmosphere was the best part of it though, just being there with the warmth of the sun, a gentle breeze and the smell of summer jasmine. Picking up fresh focaccia and a simple cherry tomato pizza from a small supermarket and taking it to eat in the park with a bottle of water. Finding a little jetty at the end of a narrow alleyway, away from the crowds, and sitting in the sun, watching the boats go by….
It was an early start for the race and despite our nerves walking to the centre to the get the boat we were looking ‘bad ass’, we were strong, we were confident, we were hoping we hadn’t bitten off more than we could handled! Then when we got to the centre all we wanted was to find the person who decided that one toilet cubicle was sufficient for a shed load of women about to embark of a 32 km boat race!!
After a rather shambolic start we were finally loaded into the boat and we were off. The waves of open water were new to us, the soaking as water came into the boat was not! The huge number of boats surrounding us was amazing, but totally fabulous. We called over to ask where fellow paddlers and rowers were from and cheered them, they asked where we were from and were met with a role call of countries.
Everyone was just on a high being out on the water, surrounded by so many other like minded people. I thought after a while I’d be tired, bored and wishing it was all over, but not a bit of it. We were enjoying the sights, the crowds, the music…. well okay it was singing, but not entirely in tune and I’m not sure everyone knew the words, or maybe they knew them, but were singing different songs, then before we knew it we were pulling over at an island (sand bank with a lonely bush – soon to be a very well appreciated bush by those who needed a little privacy!) and a spot of leg stretching, selfie taking and ermm, refreshments…
The second half was long and tiring, but it was still fun. We sang everything from ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to ‘I will survive’ to a strange, made up song about dragon boating for which I never did quite get the words for – but the words I could pick out I sung really loudly, that makes up for it, right??
Then there was the traffic jam, yep, it even happens in boats. Of course there are no traffic lights on the canal, oh no, traffic control came in the form of a man in an orange wet suit who suddenly popped up in between the various rowing boats, Dragon boats, kayaks, etc etc. all vying to get under the same small bridge and all trying not to get caught in the oars of the rowing boats which all take up a ridiculous amount of room.
We may have been stuck in the jam of boats for ages, waiting to get through, but it didn’t matter. The buzz was amazing, the people dining in restaurants at the side of the canal were cheering as, as were those on the bridges, there was an elderly lady leaning out of an upstairs window ringing a cow bell at us. Everyone was happy and smiling, both in and out of the boats.
Finally we were through and approaching the finishing point, as we approached it our names were called out over the PA system, how they managed that given the huge number of boats we were surrounded by I will probably never know, but it send up another huge cheer from the ladies in our boat. Our medals and T-shirts were unceremoniously thrown into the boat and then all we needed to do was turn around and head back again, back to the sports centre to return our boat and our helm!
I will admit to a disco kip before heading out again for dinner that evening – six hours on the water does rather take it out of you….
Would I do it again? Definitely!! Did I treat myself to a bottle of bubbles on the way home, certainly did!
Ever said yes to something which you were not at all convinced you wanted to do? I think we all do at some point. Well, that’s what happened to me at the beginning of this year. I’d made a promise to myself to not turn down new opportunities and experiences, after all, life really is too short to say no, well not all the time anyway! Enter the Dragon, well Dragon Boat courtesy of one very bubbly lady who comes bursting into my world, ‘I’m starting a new dragon boat team, a team for survivors of breast cancer, it’s good for you, it’s fun, you’ll love it!!’ Did I believe her? Well, to be honest, no, not really, but she was so enthusiastic and my friend Sarah was up for doing it, so I remembered my promise and said yes, I’d give it a go. In my mind that meant I’d show willing, go along, have a go and then get back to my running the following week.
So one chilly February morning Sarah and I drove out to Wraysbury, not knowing what to expect. We didn’t know anyone else there or what we were going to be doing, of course I’d Googled Dragon boating, read all about the benefits of it for those who have had breast cancer and then seen photos of all these people who seemed so in synch, well that could never be me – I’m far to clumsy to be co-ordinated!
Well I needn’t have worried, we picked out our buoyancy aids and a paddle each and were given a safety talk and demonstration of how to paddle, then to heave this huge boat out of the shed and down to the water. Nervous? Hell yeah!! We were lined up and decisions were made as to where in the boat we should sit before our first tentative steps along the jetty and into the boat.
Quite honestly I don’t remember all the details, but what I do remember is how fantastic the coaches and existing paddlers were. We were a new team, with no name and no idea what we were doing and we had come along and, to be honest, invaded a very well establish team, the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were a well practiced team and here they were with a load of newbies loaded into their boat, trying their best, but no doubt making lots of mistakes. There was the unmistakable clash of paddles and splashing of water but they were so gracious, so encouraging and so helpful. Okay, I’m going to give it a go next week….. that really was fun….
I then thought I’d alternate between Dragon boating and Parkrun, which I’ve been trying to get back into. Maybe it was the extra lie in on a Saturday morning, maybe it was the fear of not improving as quickly as the rest of the team, or more likely I just really enjoyed being out on the water, working hard, but doing so as part of an evolving team. Sometimes ending up going three times a week and I’ve have now even managed to get my son to join me. Whatever, it’s a brilliant way to start a morning……
Of course, once you start on with something new like this it really does snowball, in all sorts of ways, now when I can’t be out on the water I find myself trying to read up about it, find out more about the community, the races, the different groups and strangely fascinating are articles about training and techniques, one site I’ve found really worth while is http://www.dragonglobe.com it starts to make sense of things, like why the coaches put people in the boat in the order that they do, that was all in an article ‘Sections of a Dragonboat’.