MONTREAL — The 20 of them range in age from the 30s to the 80s, 18 of them are women, and most had no previous paddling experience, let alone ever attempted to slay a dragon.
They are the Blazing Paddles, a pick-up group of Montrealers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who will be competing in Israel’s first dragonboat festival this month.
Their captain is Alice Lehrer, a novice to the sport herself, who put the team together from scratch starting late last summer. She was looking for anyone who would like to experience Israel in a novel way and was not afraid to log hours in an indoor dragonboat tank for months in advance.
The Blazing Paddles are one of 20 Canadian teams participating in the festival which will be held at Lake Kinneret May 16 to 18, along with an equal number of Israeli teams.
The festival was the idea of former Montrealer Debbie Halton-Weiss of Ottawa, a member of the Sea Lions dragonboat team there, and is under the auspices of UIA Federations Canada. It was conceived as a new way of connecting Canadians and Israelis and promoting tourism.
Blazing Paddles (a pun, of course, on the hilarious 1974 Mel Brooks movie) are sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which found the festival’s environmental theme fits well with its mission, which includes water conservation in Israel, said Eastern region director Gail Grief, a team member.
The Blazing Paddles will spend a total of 10 days in Israel on tour, getting a chance to see JNF projects, such as a water reservoir and a bird sanctuary.
At the festival, Blazing Paddles will wear fiery orange T-shirts with their logo of a fire-breathing mythical beast, superimposed by two cross paddles (not oars, that’s for rowing) on the back.
On the front is a large blue water drop with the slogan “JNF is… water.”
The Canadians are introducing Israelis to a sport that has become popular in this country, especially in Montreal. The Canadian Jewish community has donated the six dragonboats made in China that 40 teams will be sharing. It is hoped the festival will be an annual event.
Though most of the Blazing Paddles are newcomers to the sport – and few would describe themselves as athletic – they have taken this very seriously. They met monthly at the 22 Dragons facility on the Lachine Canal for rigorous training sessions in a simulated boat under a professional coach.
The first time they got into a real dragonboat together was April 30, when the Lachine Canal opened for the season to paddlers.
“A tremendous camaraderie has grown among us,” said Lehrer, a veteran community volunteer. It’s also a total body workout, she said, but perhaps more importantly, it is therapeutic – good for the body, mind and spirit.
One of the few who is a dragonboat enthusiast is Sandra Sterling, a member for 12 years of the Power of the Dragon, a team of women aged 40 and older who are cancer survivors or caregivers.
The name “power” was not an idle choice. “Individually, we’re not strong, but when we get in the boat and paddle, that changes. I always remember a [surprised] boy yelling after we finished a race, ‘Did you see those old ladies?’”
The Power of the Dragon became mentors to the Blazing Paddles, sharing their practice time at 22 Dragons.
This will be Sterling’s first trip to Israel in 41 years.
“When I heard that there was a Montreal team going to a dragonboat festival in Israel, I said I must be part of it,” recalled the adult educator who said she otherwise rarely takes time off work. “Dragonboating and Israel both have great meaning for me.”
Success in dragonboating does not depend on brute strength or exceptional stamina. The key is synchronicity, with team members moving their single paddle through the water in unison. That rhythm is aided by a drummer on board and a steersperson – both will be Israelis – keeps the boat on course. The Blazing Paddles hope to cover the 350-metre course in under three minutes.
Six of the paddlers have never visited Israel, including airline attendant Kirsten Hanson, who was a serious dragonboat competitor until some years ago. She is one of the two non-Jews on the team.
“Kirsten has a strong affinity to Judaism and always wanted to go there,” said Lehrer, who spends time every year in Israel. Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, is a site of Christian significance.
One of the two men on the team is Joel King, who with wife, Marlene, were early supporters of the project. Their daughter, Stephanie, is the youngest Blazing Paddle. Marlene is going, too, but will remain on shore to cheer them on.
One member, Dianne Modell, is actually from Washington, D.C. A recreational paddler who has never travelled to Israel, she heard about the trip through a daughter who lives here.
Participants are fully responsible for costs, including their training. While this trip is not a fundraiser, some team members have signed up sponsors and the proceeds will go toward a JNF project to be determined, Lehrer said.
Another Montreal team is also taking part in the festival independently: Two Abreast, a competitive team composed mainly of breast-cancer survivors, which has been around since 1997.
Grief said JNF’s association with the festival is beneficial to the organization by allowing it to reach many people who were not previously familiar with its work.
In the unlikely event that their enthusiasm flags before they climb into their fiercesome vessel, this motley crew can always break into their team-building chant, which begins: “Blazing Paddles – Montreal’s force/ Paddle Israel’s water source/ JNF’s our reason why/ We’ve got paddles – raise them high.”