Madisonville —“If you don’t move together, you’ll never succeed.” That could be the motto for many things in life, but Don Lawson, of the Toronto Fire Service, was referring to dragon boat racing.
Lawson and 26 colleagues from Toronto were in Madisonville on Saturday for the fourth annual GWN Greater New Orleans International Dragon Boat Festival on the Tchefuncte River.
GWN refers to Great White North Dragon Boat, according to the dragon boat racing company’s website.
“It’s all about teamwork,” Lawson said of the ancient water sport that was born in China, is big in Canada and is growing in popularity in the United States.
The 40-foot-long boats are decorated with dragon heads and tails; they hold 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steersman.
“You have to be paddling together” to make headway along the 500-meter course, Lawson said. “It’s a great sport for team building.” Lawson and the Toronto Firefighters showed off their teambuilding skills at the end of the day, paddling in nearly perfect unison and taking home first place in the Mixed A Division final.
Another team of firefighters, the Chinese Fire Drill from Engine 26 of the New Orleans Fire Department, took first place in the Mixed C Division final after giving up sleep to paddle: “We got off at 7 this morning and came over here for 8,” Brad Matherne said. The Lions Venture Scout team from Bogalusa, meanwhile, took first place in the Mixed B Division final.
But it wasn’t all about winning medals and trophies. The festival, which benefitted the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center of St. Tammany Parish Hospital, also was about winning the battle against cancer.
The Cajun Invasion team from Lafayette is made up of cancer survivors and “co-survivors” (family members).
“I heard about it (dragon boat racing) in Canada and wanted to bring it here,” said Delores Blair, a triple cancer survivor. She said she and some friends raised money and bought a boat in 2006. “I got in the boat and I’ve been there since.”
She said the Cajun Invasion is the only official dragon boat team in the state.
The team, which double cancer survivor Ann Roberts calls her “floating support group,” took part in a cancer memorial service during Saturday’s festival. Blair read a poem and team members paddled to the middle of the river to drop pink carnations into the water, remembering those who are battling cancer.
The Dragon Boat festival managed to dodge the raindrops and deal with the mud on a soggy Saturday as crowds strolled along the scenic riverfront, which was lined with exhibitors and food and retail vendors, including a health and wellness village.
“This is a great fit for St. Tammany Parish,” said Tanya Leader, who brought the festival to Madisonville four years ago. Leader is vice president for sales for the St. Tammany Tourist Commission and is also a member of the Madisonville Chamber of Commerce.
She said the Tourist Commission was looking to bring new events to St. Tammany a few years ago, and she had heard about the rising popularity of dragon boat racing. She brought the idea to the Madisonville Chamber of Commerce, which was happy to supply the river for racing. The rest is history.
“We were going to paddle rain or shine,” Leader said. “I’m so happy Mother Nature came through for us.”
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