No draggin’ in that boat

Given the role that well-aged cheddar has long played in the history of competitive sculling, it was inevitable that eventually Cabot Cheese would enter a couple of boats in next Sunday’s annual Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival at Waterfront Park in Burlington. And given my belief that there is no food that cannot be improved with cheese (and some foods, such as broccoli, need all the cheese they can get), it was only a matter of time before I grabbed a paddle and climbed aboard one of the two Cabot Cheese dragon boats.

Dedicated readers (or those with way too much time on their hands) may recall that five years ago I wrote about my friend John Vautier’s involvement with dragon boat racing. He had finished his treatment for breast cancer (John is, thankfully, man enough for a mammogram.), and was joining a team. The 2010 Dragon Boat Festival hopes to raise $300,000 to support Dragonheart Vermont, a breast cancer survivor and supporter organization, and build an activity cabin for Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, the Colchester summer camp for kids who have or have had cancer.

Meanwhile, especially dedicated readers (and my editor), might ask why I am paddling in a Cabot Cheese boat when I could have climbed aboard the Burlington Free Press Paper Dragon Boat. Answer? Cabot asked first.

The Cabot and Free Press boats will be in the water next week with 76 other boats. This year’s race has 74 community boats and five paddled exclusively by cancer survivors. Each boat holds 20 paddlers, plus someone to steer and someone to drum. Steering and drumming are helpful, in the first case so you don’t paddle into the Lake Champlain ferry, and in the second so everyone in the boat more or less paddles in time.

I am in pretty good shape so I figured my first practice would be a walk in the park. I imagined that the 20 of us would simply take our oars and paddle like Champ had just risen from the lake floor with an 18th-century British warship in its mouth and we wanted to get cell phone pictures before the animal once more disappeared into a Joe Citro novel. We would paddle like mad women and men.

Early into our practice, however, our coach disabused me of this notion. Her name is Linda Dyer and she is an animal — in a good way. Imagine if Green Bay Packer football coach Vince Lombardi had been blond, physically fit, and pretty. She made it clear before we even got into the water that dragon boat racing is more about coordination and synchronization than strength. You want to be a Rockette with a paddle — though Dyer also wanted us to have the ferocity of a Tour de France cyclist.

“Come on,” she demanded after we had been paddling off and on for an hour and were now learning to sprint, “you can do anything for 90 seconds!”

Dyer is also the founder of Dragonheart Vermont. In other words, she brought dragon boat racing to Vermont back in 2003. She first discovered the sport when she was living in Philadelphia, but when she moved to the Green Mountains, she realized that “Lake Champlain was the perfect environment.” Dyer, like many aficionados of the sport, is also a breast cancer survivor — 17 years, in her case.

“Dragon boat racing is about empowerment,” she says. “It’s a life-affirming, inspirational way for breast cancer survivors to connect.” Moreover, it is also about community and building a very big tent.

Now, I have no idea how our boat will do versus the other 78 next Sunday, but I am looking forward to the festival immensely. It seems to me, there can’t possibly be a loser in a lake full of dragon boats.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 1, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.