The Annapolis Dragon Boat Club kicked off Breast Cancer Awareness Month with its inaugural Dragonfest event at the club’s home port, Pier 4 Marina in Annapolis. The event featured live music by the band SpaceKrafft, raffles, and a silent auction for a variety of prizes.
Dragon boating has a long history dating back over 2000 years in ancient China. The sport was originally used by villagers to wake the hibernating, heavenly dragon spirit around the summer solstice.
The sport’s popularity among breast cancer survivors started in the 1990s. Dr. Don McKenzie discovered that exercise could reduce the risk of lymphedema, a swelling caused by removal or weakening of the lymph vessels and nodes. Lymphedema can be caused by surgeries or radiation.
McKenzie used dragon boating for his studies. Since then, the sport has become a popular way for breast cancer survivors to gather and do full-body exercise to aid in recovery.
Typically, dragon boating involves 22 people in a 48-foot-long boat. A drummer at the front keeps tempo with the front paddlers and sets the tempo for paddlers in all three sections. The front section breaks the water and sets the initial pace, the middle section provides a lot of the power, and the back section helps steer and keep the boat steady.
The Annapolis Dragon Boat Club was started in 2010 by Mike Ashford, an Annapolis breast cancer survivor and founder of McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar, and Lorraine Tafra, a surgeon with Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. Together, they reached out to breast cancer survivors in the area to start the club.
The club participates in races across the East Coast, as well as international festivals. Boats from multiple clubs compete. Most races are 500 meters long and last about two minutes.
“People think it’s similar to sitting around all day for a swim meet and then the swimmer actually only swims a couple of minutes,” said club board chair Joni Krafft.
Teams typically practice five times a week during the season. Roughly 50 percent of the club is made up of breast cancer survivors, who call themselves “breast cancer warriors.”
Krafft is a retired government employee with two adult children. She has been a member since 2012 and discovered the club through her friend, Ashford.
Krafft was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 1996. She went through chemotherapy and radiation, and she received a stem cell transplant.
“It was about a yearlong process,” Krafft said.
Krafft enjoys how the club offers support for breast cancer survivors while focusing more on the sport and exercise.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be around women who have been through the same experience, but it’s not something that we dwell on,” said Krafft, who serves as a coach and paddles at the front.
Severna Park resident Liz Carlin has been a member of the club since fall 2016 and serves as the treasurer on the board of directors. In 2014, she noticed a lump under her arm. She thought the lump was a bug bite, but when it didn’t go away, she went to her doctor, who recommended a mammogram. After two mammograms and a biopsy, Carlin was told by an oncologist that the lump was probably not just fatty tissue as her other doctors had thought.
“I left the hospital, got in my car, drove around the parking lot three or four times trying to get my thoughts clear,” Carlin said. “And then I stopped the car and called my daughter.”
Carlin’s daughter, a nurse practitioner and oncology/breast cancer specialist who lived in Kensington at the time, reassured Carlin that she had the right people working with her.
“She knew exactly what to do for me and who to call,” Carlin said.
In 2016, following chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries, Carlin’s daughter recommended that her mom meet with the Annapolis Dragon Boat Club and try the sport to aid in her recovery.
Carlin’s first time in a dragon boat was a “soft paddle,” where she just rode in the boat. The practice is meant for first-time dragon boat users and people still in treatment who are too weak to paddle strongly. Although she couldn’t be very involved in paddling for the 2016 season, she quickly grew to like it.
“I was just smitten with it — the friendships, the camaraderie, and the fact that there were other people that had gone through exactly or very similar situations to me that I could talk to if I wanted to,” Carlin said.
In 2017, Carlin participated in a fundraiser and Guinness World Record attempt to row a half marathon at Spa Creek. Carlin and the other women were nervous about paddling for three hours and 13 miles, but by the time the boat set off, the careful planning of the event paid off.
“It was a beautiful day,” Carlin said. “The steerers of the boat had a plan. We switched gears. We switched drummers. We sang songs. It was just quite a party on the boat.”
A special part of the event was the participation of a woman in her early 40s who was a metastatic breast cancer survivor. She served as a drummer.
“She didn’t have a lot of family around this area, so we sort of adopted her,” Carlin said. “And we knew, sadly, what the future might look like for her. Having her on the front of that boat leading us into the harbor at that last minute with her children standing by cheering was a very special moment for all of us.”
The club achieved the world record.
In summer 2018, the club went to Italy for a dragon boat festival. It was Carlin’s first time in Italy. During the festival, the 3,000 breast cancer survivors in attendance threw pink flowers into the Arno River to celebrate survivors and those lost to breast cancer.
“It really made a difference,” Carlin said.
Carlin came up with the idea of Dragonfest to provide financial support for races, operating costs, boat replacement or repair, club trips, and outreach for new members. The next big club trip is the New Zealand Dragon Boat Festival in April 2023. Since the club has grown to more than 100 members, the women might purchase a third boat. The event also supported a variety of charities including Bosom Buddies Charities, Wellness House of Annapolis, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership
The Dragonfest event had over 50 raffle prizes and some silent auction items. It featured food, including oysters and hot dogs. The band Spacekrafft provided the live entertainment. The band has members who are siblings of some of the dragon boat club members. Many community members and politicians helped with the raffles. Doctors, nurses and therapists were onsite supporting the breast cancer awareness information table.
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