4 min

Paddling with all dykes

Canada's first all-lesbian dragon boat team gears up for Alcan

Credit: Michelle Mayne photo

“I always say we’re the hottest lesbian dragon boat team in Vancouver,” says Sisters in Sync captain and co-founder, Jennifer Breakspear. “I accept we’re the only lesbian dragon boat team, but we’re still the hottest,” she laughs.

Sisters in Sync bills itself as the first-ever all-lesbian dragon boat racing team. Although mixed gay and lesbian dragon boat teams have existed in Montreal and Toronto for a number of years, Sisters in Sync is the first of its kind in Canada.

The team has spent the last seven months training for its first competitions this summer.

“There’s an amazing feeling in that boat,” says Breakspear. “You get 20 paddlers all paddling in sync — the power that’s harnessed through all of their collective energy is incredibly exhilarating.”

The team brings together more than 25 women from a variety of backgrounds, ranging in age from their early 30s to late 60s.

“We all bring our individual talents and strengths,” says Breakspear. “Right from the first time that hooked me; that was thrilling.”

Dragon boats originated in southern China over 2,000 years ago. However, the modern sport of competitive racing began in Hong Kong in 1976 in an effort to promote that city. Today, dragon boat races occur in many cities around the world and dozens of places across Canada.

According to the International Dragon Boat Federation, the sport’s governing body, 90,000 people participate in Canada and the United States. Dragon boat racing is scheduled be a demonstration sport at the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing.

To date, Sisters in Sync has registered in six festivals in the coming months which, Breakspear admits, “is pretty ambitious for a new team in our first race season. Most of the women in the boat have never paddled in a dragon boat race, so this is going to be incredibly exciting.

“We’ll do the Alcan [Dragon Boat Festival] in mid-June,” she says. “We’ll do a smaller women’s regatta on Cultus Lake [in August], and then another month without racing before we get to the second largest dragon boat festival in North America which is in Kelowna in mid-September.

“Certainly, we can go further a field,” she notes. “There are races in Victoria, Seattle, all up and down the coast and throughout North America. We’ll see where this team goes.”

A research consultant in her professional life, Breakspear began developing Sisters in Sync last summer. “I’ve always been into paddle sports, active on and around the water, with kayaking, canoeing, sailing. [I] watched dragon boating on the Rideau Canal, and thought it looked really exciting,” the Ottawa native recalls.

But it wasn’t until she and her partner moved here in 2005 that she began to make her paddling dream a reality. The couple stepped into their first dragon boat together just one year ago, on their wedding anniversary. “It was right then that we both decided we wanted to get into this sport,” says Breakspear. “We ended up paddling with the team we were in the boat with that day, taking part in some races with them. Then [we] ended up joining a second team and paddling in a number of festivals and regattas all summer long.”

Her partner doesn’t begrudge the training time. She is “fully supportive,” says Breakspear.

When asked about recruiting other team members, Breakspear says she “got chatting with some other dykes, saying ‘There’s so much wonderful energy in these teams, wouldn’t you love to see that emphasized by paddling with all dykes?’

“We would sit around and talk about how that’d be wonderful. But we looked around and there [were] no lesbian teams in Vancouver, or no out lesbian teams. Obviously, there [are] lots of lesbians in the sport,” she notes.

“We put together a little flyer which we handed out at Pride events inviting women to meet with us. We held maybe three or four information sessions,” she continues.

“From that, [we] got a list of about 20 interested women in September. We [threw] them in a dragon boat, [gave] them some quick instruction and [entered] these fun races. To a person, they all got hooked.

“At that time, [we were] just a loose association called Paddling with Pride,” she recalls.

Maggie Murray is Sisters in Sync’s youngest paddler. She’s been interested in dragon boating since she volunteered at the Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in high school.

Now she’s proud to be part of Canada’s first all-lesbian dragon boat team. It’s important to have a visible presence, she says. The team is a “role model.”

Plus, “it’s a good excuse to get out and exercise twice a week, meet some other women in the community and make new friends,” she adds.

Asked how she thinks the team will do at this June’s Alcan Festival, Murray is optimistic. “When we actually stop horsing around and focus, we do really well,” she says. “There’s a lot of power in our boat.”

Nadine Wu is one of the team’s most seasoned paddlers, having started dragon boat racing when she was at university in Victoria. She really enjoys participating with this group and being on a team where she can feel comfortable and be herself.

She also likes the camaraderie. “It’s a lot of fun in the boat. Everyone’s joking. There’s a lot of teasing and laughter.”

Breakspear mentions the fun aspect of the team as well. It’s another reason that she’s involved — “for the sheer fun of getting a boatload of rowdy, out, loud and proud dykes having a boisterous good time. They’re a great bunch of women, and we have a lot of fun both on the water during our practices, and afterwards in social occasions.”

Breakspear admires her team’s dedication. “Sisters in Sync paddled right through the winter, except for about five weeks from December to January. Our last practice before we took a break, we actually were paddling in the snow, which wasn’t a lot of fun.”

Another challenging part of putting together such a team is generating the necessary funds for things like equipment, uniforms, festival fees and travel. “We had a fundraising dance in April called the Sisters in Sync Spring Fling,” Breakspear says. “It was an enormous success. We had a full house, women dancing all evening long, very successful raffles, all of which brought in some good funds.”

It also “really showed us some much needed support from the community,” she adds. “Part of it was letting the community know that we’re there.

“So far, as moral support, we’ve got girlfriends, wives, [and] family members coming out and cheering us on at practices,” Breakspear notes. “I’m pretty excited to see who shows up to cheer us on at the races.”