The 23rd Annual Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival 2011

The 2011 Dragon Boat Festival was inspiring for everyone involved.

Credit: Lydia Millett

Paddlers take to the waters of False Creek for the 23rd Annual Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat festival

Abreast in A Boat breast cancer survivors and other Vancouverites get out in the sunshine and celebrate the 23rd Annual Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival


Last weekend 180 dragon boating teams took to the waters of False Creek to compete in the 23rd annual Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival.


The weekend-long festival is the biggest event of its kind in North America, and now in its 23rd year, the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival attracts over 100,000 people.


When I arrived on Saturday morning, crowds already lined the shore, enjoying the sunshine and the races and cheering on their children, friends, workmates and parents as they rowed the 500-metre course.


The boats were moving at around 3 metres per second and every minute the paddlers were averaging 70-80 strokes. It was impressive to watch!


Striving to be the Greenest Festival in Canada

The crowds enjoyed everything from food to fashion at last weekend’s Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boating Festival.


The free festival had it all: from live music, to a mini film festival, an artisan market showcasing local Vancouver artists and even an awesome range of street food vendors. Best of all, the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival is striving to be the greenest festival in Canada.


Last year 20,000 plastic bottles were recycled from the festival, so this year the focus was on encouraging the use of refillable bottles. Metro Vancouver’s new Water Wagon was launched at the festival, giving thirsty paddlers and festival goers the opportunity to refill their bottles with cold water instead of depending on single-use plastic containers.


The festival’s Green Team, along with Urban Impact, were on site to help the crowds do the right thing with their waste. Guiding their use of recycling bins, manning composting stations and raising awareness about how to divert waste from landfills.


Rowing for a Reason

Dragon boating teams at the festival strike out for a cause.


The event provides a place for rowers to get together, compete and raise awareness for what they believe in.


Teams at this year’s festival included Conquering Waves, a team of rowers with mental illnesses; the Sisters in Sync, a lesbian rowing team that aims to encourages diversity and acceptance in the community; and the inspiring Abreast in A Boat teams made up of breast cancer survivors.


Abreast in A Boat: A research project that became so much more

Vancouver women have inspired women all over the world to paddle for breast cancer awareness. (Image: Dragon Boat BC)


In the past, women who had had breast cancer surgery were told to forgo any heavy lifting, or any activities using their upper bodies repetitively, due to the danger of developing Lymphedema.


In 1996 Doctor Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, decided to dispel the myth. Looking for the most repetitious upper body activity he could think, he decided on dragon boating.


So 24 brave Vancouver women took up oars and formed the world’s first breast cancer survivor’s dragon boating team. None of the women developed Lymphedema; what they did develop were lifelong friendships, a love for the sport and strength in solidarity. 


Dragon boating provides a floating support group

Vancouver women show the world there is life after breast cancer with the Breast Cancer Survivor Challenge Race. (Image: Abreast in A Boat)


As always, the Abreast in a Boat were at the festival; this year seven teams competed in the annual Breast Cancer Survivor Challenge race, laughing, rowing together and championing their cause.


The success of a good dragon boating team is paddling in absolute unison, a fitting metaphor for these pink-clad Vancouver teams. These ladies have inspired women all over the world who have been affected by breast cancer, to come together and row together in order to heal and move forward.


“We are a floating support group for one another,” says Susan Anthony, avid paddler and Abreast on a Boat board member.


Paddling for life after breast cancer

Remembering those lost to breast cancer in the Flower Ceremony. (Image: Abreast on A Boat)


There are now hundreds of breast cancer survivor dragon boating teams worldwide, from Canada to Australia, and it all started right here in Vancouver. “We were the originals!” says Susan. “Our mandate is to spread the message that there is life after breast cancer and we all have a great deal of fun.”


The Breast Cancer Survivor Challenge was the last race of the day and ended with a Flower Ceremony:


“We link up the boats, we have a song that we play that is significant, we throw carnations and remember those that we’ve lost and in memory of them we have a moment of silence,” says Susan.