Dragon Boat friendships at Vancouver festival run deep, hard and long

Dragon Boat friendships at Vancouver Festival run deep, hard and long

Todd Wong and Deb Martin wear team shirts with tartan kilts, making the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team very easy to spot! photo 2005 archives.

The Gung Haggis dragon boat team paddlers are quickly discovering that by wearing a kilt with their team shirt, paddlers  and tourists are asking to take a picture with them.  Okay… we are a bit of a novelty in the paddling fashion world.

Our red team shirts emblazoned with lucky gold coins “Fat Choy”, which means “prosperity”, is easily identifiable and encourages other paddlers to yell at them “Go Gung Haggis!”  or “Where's Todd?”

As I was walking back to the tents from the marshalling area, I bumped into friends from San Francisco Linda and Andrew who not only organize one of the top clubs in Dragon Warriors, but they also organize the San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival held on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  It attracts some of the best teams on West Coast, and there is a healthy but friendly rivalry between San Francisco and Vancouver teams.  In 2005, I invited Dragon Warriors to our post-Alcan Festival party, and their paddlers loved it.  Later that summer, I also invited Andrew and Linda out on a Taiwanese dragon boat during a practice for the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team, and gave them one of our team shirts.  They really love our shirts.  Linda said it's one of their favorites.

While I was chatting with Andrew and Linda, somebody tried to surprise me with a kiss on the neck… but I flinched.  Oops… it is Grace Morissette, my first dragon boat coach from the 1993 Headliners team when we won the inaugural Novice Cup.  Grace is paddling with the Lotus Sports Club and they surprisingly won their first race of the day, pushing them into the Competitive Divisions.  I give her a hug later… and also have a good chat with her husband Doug Mancell.

Jim McArthur is also a Lotus Sports Club stalwart.  He paddled in the first Vancouver dragon boat races at Expo 86.  Whenever Jim comes by to say hi, I unfailingly introduce him to the team, as an honourary Gung Haggis Friend.

“Where's Todd?” can often be a question asked by the team, as not only am I busy coaching the Killarney Cougar Dragons junior team, but I can often be waylaid by too many spontaneous conversations with the many dragon boat friends I know.

After all our races were done today, I was hailed by Heather Bissonette, who was doing video interviews for Nova Television.  Heather volunteered for the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner event a couple of years ago, and asked me for a reference letter when she applied for the BCIT Journalism program.

“You know the drill,” she said as we started an interview about why I was combining kilts with dragon boats.

“It's about multiculturalism.  We really do celebrate diversity in Vancouver.  People recognize Canada's historical beginnings of English and French – but in BC, I say the pioneer origins are Scottish and Chinese.  The Scots came from the Far East across the Atlantic, and the Chinese came from the Far West across the Pacific.  They met here in BC, and originally didn't like each other… but soon they started dating and having kids.  This is BC's heritage and its' future.  Dragon boat racing is a way to have fun and share our cultures.”

Soon I am chatting with Daniel of One-Apparel, the team uniform sponsor for the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival.  We bought this year's team shirts from Daniel, and he loves the design we put on it.  I suggest that he have a display of all the team jerseys who are his clients.  He asks for one of ours.  I have recommended teams such as Portland's Wasabi Paddling Club to him.  And when Linda and Andrew of San Francisco's Dragon Warriors admired my team jersey, they dropped in on Daniel and One-Apparel.

Back in the Racers' Village. I bumped into Phillip Chau, who is now coaching Edgewater Casino Without Warning.  Back in 2000, he captained the Nokia Dragons, and I was the drummer.  I also inadvertently ended up doing some coaching duties for the team too when Coach Leah Nagano was unable to coach us when the team switched practice dates.  We won gold for Rec B.  At this festival we are sharing a paddler for the Without Warning Men's team and the Gung Haggis Mixed Team, Tony, formerly of the Phillipine PYROS team whom I originally met in 2005.  Last year Art Calderwood was one of our best rookie paddlers on Gung Haggis, this year he is paddling on Without Warning.  Art and I bumped into each other and had a good chat.  We are proud of him, and he is happy to see that Gung Haggis has improved this year too.

Racer's Village is a compact community of 160 dragon boat teams, each with a designated spot under army tents.  On one side of the Gung Haggis team space are the Killarney Cougars, managed by teacher sponsor Stuart Mackinnon who fell in love with dragon boat racing when he joined the Gung Haggis team last year.  On our other side is G. Force Winds – coached, drummed and organized by Gayle Gordon who is now our lead stroke, and an assistant coach for our team.  Gayle is an whirlwind of activity this year, as she is also coaching a corporate team Flight Centre, tenting on the other side of G. Force Winds.

Gung Haggis is making a special effort to cheer on G. Force Winds because 3 of our paddlers who didn't roster for the Alcan race are now paddling with Gayle and G. Force.  It is really a compatible relationship.  Gung Haggis Fat Choy has built up a depth of about 40 members in our “club.”  I really wanted to build a second team, but it didn't work for Alcan this year.  Not everybody wanted to paddle at Alcan, some go on vacation, some have studies, some don't like the huge size of Alcan Races, nor the waiting in between races.  But now Wendy, Ashleigh and Leanne are paddling with Gayle.  It's fair to say that we all really love Gayle, and the effort that she puts into each practice.  We have nicknamed her “The Goddess.”

Leanne, Ashleigh and Wendy are Gung Haggis paddling on G. Force Wind.

James Yu, Michael Brophy and Todd Wong at the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival

There are so many friends here at the festival.  GVRD 44 Cheeks are just opposite us.  Their coach and drummer James Yu was on my first  dragon boat team.  Their steersperson Dave Samis is also a Gung Haggis paddler.  I coached the GVRD team back in 2003, and they joined us for races in Portland OR, and Victoria BC that year.

The Pirates led by Ian Paul are around the corner.  My family friend and honourary cousin Mei-Fah is just a few tents away with the Richmond Centre Dragoneers.   Her daughter Jessie is paddling on the Richmond Colts Junior Team.  And over around the other corner are 6 Wasabi Teams from Portland. I consider the Wasabi Team Huge women's premier team as “my Portland team” because they have invited me to steer for them on 3 occasions in Kent WA, Deep Cove BC, and for last year's Victoria races.  This is largely due to my friendship with one of their veteran paddlers Suzi Cloutier, a former US National kayak team member.  Since 1991, Suzi and I have had a tradition of meeting, exchanging gifts and having a post-Alcan Monday brunch.  But sadly she is not at this year's festival.  Coach Kim Ketcham explained that she couldn't make this year's trip due to the sudden passing of a close friend.

Here's my friend Suzi admiring the Hon. David Lam Trophy for “Best Multicultural Team” with the winning Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team in 2005 – photo Todd Wong

And it is these friendships that I have with so many of the paddlers that make this event special for me.  Having conversations with Manfred Preuss and his wife Kathy from Chilliwack.  Saying hello with Connie and Kristine who also work at the Vancouver Public Library with me.  Seeing Tracey who first paddled with Gung Haggis and after only four practices won a medal at the inaugural Sellwood Park Race in Portland OR, then again two weeks later in Victoria with a combined team of Gung Haggis Fat Choy with Dieselfish of San Francisco.

Dragon Boat racing is about teamwork.  But at the root of the team is friendship.  The Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team is built with an emphasis on friendship and good-hearted people.  It is the favorite team I have ever paddled or coached for.  And as Tony Lim, the former PYROS paddle wrote to me last night.  “Gung Haggis IS Todd Wong.”

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