As many as 2,000 determined paddlers will descend on the Peach City in the coming days for the 23rd annual Penticton Dragon Boat Festival. “If you are to come down here to Skaha Lake Park this festival weekend, you’ll see everybody has their tents set up and we’re going to have a tiny city for two days,” said festival organizer and head coach Don Mulhall who has worked at the sport locally for over a quarter century. “There will be tents everywhere and everybody cheering each other on. It’s just a wonderful time for everyone whether you’re competing or not.” Sharon Gray is a member of the Penticton Golden Dragons senior’s team that will be taking part. “We have a wonderful time,” said Gray, a veteran of 10 years of dragon boating. “We have so much fun and we laugh a lot but we’re still competitive. “The races are so exciting, they’re quick, they only last two minutes but oh my god for that two minutes you work like crazy... but it’s just so much fun.” For Mulhall, the all-important word when it comes to dragon boating is “team”. “The focus is not on the individual, the focus is on everybody working together,” he said. “You don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest or the best, you just have to be able to work together.” There will be 60 entires in this year’s festival, believed to be the second largest of its kind in the province. One of those teams is very close to Mulhall’s heart. “We have a team (Flying Dragons) of individuals with intellectual difficulties, Canada’s first ever,” said the coach. “I used to be a Special Olympics swim coach and it was just something I really wanted to bring into dragon boating.” In addition to paddling in exhibition races, the team will also be chipping in with the volunteer duties and helping load competitors in and out of the boats. “We may not have as many volunteers as other events but the ones we have are so great,” said Mulhall. “There’s a small army of them that help.”
There are two divisions again this year, women and a mixed side. “I would like to see more men for sure,” said Mulhall. “I think because of Survivorship that everybody thinks you have to have had breast cancer, you don’t.” However, saying that, the coach described the Sunday remembrance and commemoration service for victims of breast cancer as one of the best he’s seen. “When the breast cancer survivors are finished racing they pull in among the crowd on the beach and the ceremony begins. It’s very, very moving,” said Mulhall. During the service, after a moment of silence survivors toss thousands of carnation flowers into the water around them in memory of those who no longer paddle with their teams. The estimated time of the remembrance ceremony is 11 a.m. This weekend is the Penticton club’s second major event of the season, having hosted the two-day, Okanagan Super Sprints in June. Mulhall first became involved in Penticton with the outrigger club and when the Survivorship team was formed two decades ago, the first in the Okanagan, he stepped up to help. “Over the years the Penticton festival just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “It started out as a one-day event at Okanagan Lake and we moved it to two days here at Skaha Lake.” Day one of racing begins Saturday at 8:30 a.m. with new events starting every 12 minutes. The finals take place Sunday.
Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald