Dragon Boat at the Beach: A Floating Support Group
By Connie Barnard
It is the end of a perfect fall day. The setting sun casts an iridescent glow on the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, a 40 foot fiberglass boat, and its 22 paddlers, working in sync to the tom-tom beat of a leather drum. The occasional clack of paddles in a High Five is followed by echoes of laughter toward the shore. It is a stirring, unforgettable sight which would be memorable even without knowing anything about the participants. However, who they are and why they are here freezes this moment in the mind’s memory forever. These are the Dragon Boat people. Each of them has faced cancer and stared the demon down. They have gathered on this golden evening to celebrate life, to find strength in one another and restore physical, mental and spiritual vitality in the process.
The ancient sport of Dragon Boat racing dates back thousands of years to China where it was believed to insure prosperous and bountiful crops. It is the fastest-growing sport in the Western world, particularly in Canada, where the odd-looking boats are fashioned like a giant canoe with a dragon’s fierce head and tail attached on either end. Over the last decade the phenomenon of cancer survivor teams participating in the sport has spread across the country with festivals, mini-camps and friendly races held throughout the year and literally throughout the world.
The concept first came to this area in 2006 when Kelly Weeks, a clinical health coordinator at Health Point in Litchfield Beach, suggested it to Mary Kay Baker who at the time was leading “Bosom Buddies,” a breast cancer support group meeting at All Saints Church on Pawleys Island. Baker, a nurse, cancer survivor and former home health administrator, invited Sterling Hannah of Dragon Boat Charleston to speak at their July meeting. The group responded so enthusiastically that a dozen of them traveled to Charleston in December to participate as guests in an Ashley River paddle. A month later, in January of 2007, the fledgling core group was able to purchase a wonderful new boat of its own, thanks to the generosity of local residents Bud and Jan Jones, who chose to remain anonymous until just recently. Manufactured in Germany and ordered through a company in Canada, the boat, replete with dragon’s head and tail and caller’s drum, was delivered and christened in September of 2007.
Dragon Boat at the Beach was now official. Through the efforts of Mary Kay Baker and others, good things continued to fall into place for the group. The Marina at The Reserve offered to store the boat and provide launches and other support at no charge. The Georgetown Hospital System agreed to work in collaboration with the group through its wellness program at Health Point which provides training, supervision and conditioning classes through the clinical cardiac and cancer rehab coordinator who also serves as the Dragon Boat’s coach. Kelly Weeks served in this role until she took a position with the American Cancer Society in Charleston, and Stacey Baker took over her position as coach, trainer, and health coordinator.
Both young women have been vital to the group, providing a perfect balance of encouragement and discipline. Mary Kay Baker credits them with a major role in the group’s immediate and overwhelming success: “Kelly started us on our way with conditioning classes and teaching us how to paddle. Stacey has taken Kelly’s vision and made it her own.” At the same time, both coaches have been greatly touched by their association with the paddlers. Kelly reflects, “It is amazing to see a group of folks with a common history paddle together and grow so much strength from within and from one another.” Stacey adds, “Working with such a group has made me realize what strength, hope, determination and faith it takes to persevere past cancer. My only hope is that one day I can be as inspiring, caring and positive as those I paddle with.”
Though the local Dragon Boat initiative grew out of the Bosom Buddies support group, participation is not limited to breast cancer survivors. In fact, there are several male cancer survivor participants, including Scotty Scott who handles the group’s operations and serves as one of the steersmen. Scotty’s wife, Carol, is also a member. Participant John Hasset says, “As a survivor of two cancers, I had heard about the group and decided to visit a practice one day to see what they were all about. It is impossible to be around them and not want to be a part of that connection.”
At the same time, participation in Dragon Boat is not strictly limited to cancer survivors. Robbin Rubano, a massage therapist in Murrells Inlet, is a member of the group’s reserve team, paddlers who fill in for the regular team members, lend support and cheer them on. Robbin says, “I had just moved here from New Jersey when I met Mary Kay and learned about the program. I’ve benefitted from the conditioning program and weekly paddling, but more importantly I’ve gained friendship and mutual support. Cancer survivors can uplift you. They know the right words of comfort and the right place to enjoy a meal! I am pleased to be able to give of myself, but I receive so much more in return.”
Team member Linda Lanham of Surfside Beach, a self-proclaimed non-athlete, says of her Dragon Boat experience: “I am not one to join groups, but the men and women are all positive, happy and upbeat. No pity party here. The physical side of Dragon Boating will make you forget about anything negative in your life. The social side is camaraderie with affectionate and caring people who will be there for you.”
The program is important in both physical and emotional recovery, as Amy Webb, who joined the group just six weeks after finishing her radiation treatments, points out: “At the start, I wasn’t very strong and had to rest after just a few strokes. We took turns at resting and were encouraged to listen to our bodies. At the time I started paddling [after a lumpectomy and removal of lymph nodes], I could barely lift my left arm over my head without the assist of my right arm. Ten months later, I can now help set the pace sitting in the front of the boat and paddle vigorously without resting for nearly three minutes. Feeling the pull of the paddle, I know I am so much stronger. It feels good to be doing what I can to honor my body.”
Though only in its second year, Dragon Boat at the Beach participants enjoy a full calendar of activities. Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, April through November, they paddle for an hour in the Intracoastal Waterway. Throughout the year they do conditioning and rehab work-outs with Stacey Baker and the Health Point staff. Members of the group have participated in Friendly Competitions with the Charleston Team and look forward to participating in festivals in 2009.
Last October 19, the Orvis Company, which also sponsors Casting for Recovery, fly-fishing events for breast cancer survivors, hosted a Dragon Boat fundraiser at its Market Common store. The event included a silent auction and key note speakers Wendy Witsoe and Penny Behling, who travel the country putting on Dragon Boat festivals. It was a great time for all who attended and proceeds from the event will help defray the entrance fees for various Dragon Boat activities. Perhaps the most exciting of these will take place on March 6, 7, and 8 when Dragon Boat at the Beach will host a mini-camp for all team members. Witsoe and Behling will be on hand to help paddlers improve techniques, endurance and coordination.
The Dragon Boat group is a patchwork quilt of varied ages, backgrounds, physical strength and degrees of recovery. Spend a while among them, and you will be struck by their friendship, laughter and kind support for one another. Look closely, however, and you will be most affected by the quiet, unspoken connection among them stemming from mutual respect: soldiers fighting a common battle, veterans of an unholy war for survival. Together they celebrate the precious sanctity of life with encouragement, inspiration, hope and camaraderie.
Readers may learn more about Dragon Boat at the Beach by contacting Stacey Baker at Health Point: 843-237-2205.
About this writer
- Connie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.