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Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Published Tuesday, May 11, 2010 3:00 PM
By Paul Zoeller
Summerville Journal Scene
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They could be heard in the distance screaming like wild banshees. The crowds parted and the men broke through -- on a quest for their viking hoard. Led by a pirate flag, men wore horned hats and carried weapons and shields. Menacing to look at, the group was intent on instilling fear in the hearts of those standing in between them and the hoard.

As ominous as this band of miscreants were, many cheered them on as they marched to their boat. It was not a village they were headed to pillage or a ship they were attacking -- defeating cancer was their goal. They were going to strike a blow to cancer the best way they knew how... rowing.

The Vikings were one of 66 teams on the water Saturday rowing to raise money for Dragon Boat Charleston and the Roper St. Francis Cancer Center's Cancer Survivorship programs.

Teams of 20 paddlers race by during the Charleston Dragon Boat Festival at Brittlebank Park in Charleston.

Dragon Boats Charleston

In 2003, clinical psychologist, Cindy Carter was looking for a way to improve the quality of life for those diagnosed with cancer. She discovered a cancer survivor Dragon Boat racing in Charlotte, NC and wanted to bring the sport to Charleston. Though the sport of Dragon Boat originated in China centuries ago, the sport involving cancer survivors began in Canada in 1996.

Dragon boat racing is more than a physical form of rehabilitation, it is mental as well. Sterling Hannah, director of Dragon Boat Charleston, said many who join the team look at it as a reset button.

Amanda Faulkner, left, and April Masterson, and the rest of the Charleston Solicitors Office racing team, practice Thursday evening.

Cancer takes control away from the patients, fatigued from surgery and chemotherapy

"Cancer beats you up and you have no control over what happens to you. Boat racing helps cancer survivors hit the restart button, kind of a time of rebuilding for them," Hannah said.

Pat Barker, from Canada, teaches the proper technique for rowing to a team before they get on the boat.

Getting out on a boat is a step towards taking back control of their life, she said. More doctors realize now that just because patients are done with treatment, it is not over for them. This is part of the healing process.

Many of the Dragon Boat Charleston members don't wait until they are healed or in remission before getting out on a boat. Hannah told me the story of one woman, battling ovarian cancer, who tried out for the US Dragon Boat team while going through chemotherapy. She was out there every day working hard while enduring a lot of pain.

Cancer survivor Alice Turner keeps the rhythm for her team the Trident Health System - GREEN DRAGONS.

"The way they work on those boats, knowing the pain they go through ... it is amazing'" Hannah said. "Who knew hanging out with cancer survivors would be such inspiration... a gift to the rest of us."

The James Island Vikings Dragon Boat Racing Team parade through the crowd as they head to the docks for their next race.

Race Day

The concept is simple really, paddle like crazy for just over a minute as you and 19 others propel a boat 250m across the water while a drummer keeps the rhythm and another steers from the back.

On Saturday, experienced and novice alike took to the water. The teams consisted of groups from local schools and area businesses. Most had never been in a dragon boat before. Those groups were the most fun to watch as they did their best to stay in sync while banging paddles together, splashing water everywhere or standing up and flipping the boat over.

Teams watch as others finish their race while coming into dock.

The teams took on different monikers like Breast Friends, Dragon Whisperers or Huff the Magic Dragons, They wore elaborate outfits, custom t-shirts and sang songs as they prepared to race. Though some businesses had multiple teams on the water, those teams took on their own persona and they had a lot of fun doing it.

Members of Babes on Board with Roper St. Francsis show off their socks while waiting on the docks for their turn to race.

Though everyone was out having fun, the realities of cancer were never far from their thoughts. Members of the Vikings write the names of those affected by caner on their arms chest and back. Each of them wears a band with the name Nancy inscribed on it. She was part of their team last year before losing her battle with cancer.

As Viking team member Michael Thompson says, raising the money to support Dragon Boat Charleston is something the team is very serious about.

"It is a cause you love. With all the family members and friends affected by cancer, it really hits home," Thompson said.

Members of the Greater Charleston Chinese Dance Group perform during a break in racing action.

Half way through the day, racing stoped as everyone gathers to watch members of the Greater Charleston Chinese Dance Group entertain the crowds. Beautiful dance gave way to tearful reunions though.

After the dancers performed, cancer survivors came together to celebrate life but to also mourn those who had passed. As music played, survivors gathered together holding flowers and each other as they swayed back and forth to the song.

Cancer survivors gather to celebrate their fight against cancer and to remember those who did not.

Bobby Collins, the husband of a cancer survivor was invited up to tell his story. First, he talked about family members he lost to cancer but he was quick to point out those who won their battle -- like his wife.

Paddlers celebrate after crossing the finish line first on their final race of the day.

She joined Dragon Boat Charleston where she found others like her. Collins said he admired the team and what they did.

"They work hard, play hard and live hard," he said, referring to the fact they stand at the edge and look over the precipice every day in their battle against cancer.

Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at

Comments (2)

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Saturday, May 15, 2010 11:30 PM

These cancer survivors know that cancer can attack your body but not your soul.

Posted by: Bette
Friday, May 14, 2010 12:47 AM

Terrific article ! You caught the spirit and intensity of the dragonboaters. Pictures were also great!

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