A trip of a lifetime

Witless Bay rower visits the home of dragon boat racing

By Mark Squibb | Vol. 12 No. 15 (July 25, 2019)

Kay Aylward is no stranger to being on the water.

From growing up near the water in Witless Bay, to rowing in the Royal St. John’s Regatta as an adult, dragon boating seemed a natural next step.

Aylward is an Avalon Dragon, a member on a team started by breast cancer survivor and activist Betty Ann Vater in 2006 as a means to both bring the sport to the province and unite breast cancer survivors.

Aylward, herself a breast cancer survivor, joined the group about nine years ago.

Kitty Whalen (left) and Kay Aylward with a souvenir plaque awarded to their Dragon Boat team in China.

Kitty Whalen (left) and Kay Aylward with a souvenir plaque awarded to their Dragon Boat team in China.

“It was a nice way to connect with other breast cancer survivors,” she noted, adding the exercise and comradery of team sports were other benefits.

Now, Aylward’s sport has taken her across the globe.

Aylward, along with Kitty Whalen of St. John’s, has just returned from a dragon boating excursion in China, the home of the sport.

“It was so incredibly amazing. You’re halfway around the world, and yo’re in the country where dragon boating started. Whoever thought, I mean we’re not professional dragon boaters. We’re two breast cancer survivors who just like to paddle,” Aylward said, laughing. “It gave us the opportunity to meet people that we wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet.”

Aylward, along with her team, paddled in Nantong City, Jiangsu Province; Tongren City, Guizhou Province; Zengcheng City, Guangdong Province; and Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province.

She said the experience was, in a word, unreal.

“Being in a dragon boat out on a river was so surreal. You could almost pinch yourself and say ‘Wow, can you just imagine this is where I’m to.’ The other side of the coin is that you wanted to talk to the people, and you want to experience the food, and you wanted to be a part of whatever you could take in while you were there.”

One of the highlights of the trip, said Alyward, was the comradery and unity of the team members, many of whom had never met before.

“While we didn’t bring home any trophies we did very well, including a third-place finish. Our races were 600 meters, 800 meters and one 5-kilometre,” she noted. “Our team was made up of people from South Africa, from Canada, from Thailand, and Hong Kong, from Wales, and from England. And everybody just came together like we knew each other forever. I think that was just one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me.”

But it certainly wasn’t all paddle and no play.

“On the days that we weren’t practising or paddling, they brought us to theatres, outdoor gardens. Sometimes you had free time so you could go to the mall or to one of the local markets and just walk around,” Aylward said. “If you’re going to go to a different country, it’s really nice to take in all of the differences and experience the whole country.”

And that, of course, includes the food.

“Our meals were arranged. In the mornings we would have our breakfast at the hotel, usually lunch was outside somewhere, and supper was always a kind of banquet,” she explained.

“The thing I get the strangest reaction from, is when I tell people I ate pigeon.”

And what does pigeon taste like?

“It was delicious. It was absolutely delicious. I don’t know if I could put a taste to it,” she said. “Pigeon didn’t seem a lot different than chicken, except it had a different colour,”

Also, on the menu were jellyfish, chicken feet, but also oysters, scallops and lots of fish.

No Jiggs Dinner though.

The international trip began with a trip a little closer to home.

Around October, Aylward and Whalen, whom Aylward notes is her go to partner, were asked to go to Ottawa to partake in the Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat festival.

It’s dragon boating— but on ice.

“The boat is on skis, and there’s 10 paddlers, and you have an ice pick that you dig into the ice and you shove yourself ahead, so it’s a little bit different,” explained Aylward. “The first year they had it, Ricker Mercer did a little report on it. I’ve kind of had it on my bucket list.”

While in Ottawa, Aylward and Whalen met a future teammate, Mayura Bekhor.

“A lady from London, England [Bekhor] had mentioned to us about this festival in China, and we said that we would love to do that. When she got the particulars on it, she asked if we wanted to go with her team from London, England. And we did” said Aylward. “We decided, sure, we’d love to go to China, why not?”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however.

Going on the trip involved getting a Visa - which they had to travel to Ottawa to obtain.

“In Canada, as of the first of January, you have to be fingerprinted, along with your application,” Aylward said. “We thought ’Oh, I don’t know, are we going to do this? It’s a lot of trouble!’ We slept on it, and then we said we’ll do it, and go on and see what happens.”

Today, Aylward is glad they took the chance.

“Opportunities don’t come knocking on your door everyday, so when they do, do your homework and be prepared for going, wherever that is, find out the lay of the land and what’s expected of you, but go. Why wouldn’t you go? The world is a whole lot smaller then we think it is. And people are a lot more similar in a lot of ways,” Aylward said.

Dragon boats, typically 40 feet long, are noted for their bright colours, sleek design, and namesake dragon head and tail. The boat is as indispensable to the sport as the participants.

“First of all, you have to have a dragon boat, which holds 20 paddlers, a drummer, and a steers person,” explained Aylward. “Then you have to have the 22 people. And you have to have someone trained as a steers person. After all that, you go out and have some fun!”

If you want to see some live dragon boating, the Avalon Dragons, along with other community teams, call Octagon Pond in Paradise home, and will be racing in the annual Paddle in Paradise Dragon Boat Festival, part of the SunSplash Paddle in Paradise, taking place on Saturday, Aug. 17.

Posted on August 8, 2019 .