Paddling to the Beat of a Shared Drum

By Laura Boycourt

You’d be hard-pressed to meet a stronger or more determined group of paddlers on the Bay than the Annapolis Dragon Boat Club (ADBC). Sure, its members’ core strength is enviable, and it’s true that their competitive natures are slightly intimidating. But these women aren’t leaving it all out on the water just because they want to win. Whether they’re fighting breast cancer or supporting friends or loved ones in their journeys with the disease, the members of the ADBC gain and provide each other strength and support each time they pick up
a paddle.  

The ADBC and the Annapolis Dragon Boat Foundation were founded in 2010 by former McGarvey’s Saloon & Oyster Bar owner Mike Ashford after he learned of the rehabilitative benefits of dragon boat racing for breast cancer survivors such as himself. Louise Kirk, vice chair of the ADBC, explains that a study conducted several decades ago by Canadian sports medicine physician Don McKenzie suggested the upper body workout provided by the ancient Chinese sport’s unique paddling motion could be beneficial for those recovering from breast cancer. 

As a member of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission, the club practices in Annapolis, races in dragon boat festivals along the East Coast (most meets are sanctioned by Eastern Regional Dragon Boat Association), and will compete overseas in the 2018 IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy. While not all dragon boat clubs include a team of breast cancer survivors, many do. According to the Annapolis group, there are more than 100 breast cancer teams around the world. 

Dragon boats accommodate 20 paddlers plus one drummer in the bow and a steer person with a long oar in the stern. Paddlers must rotate their bodies as they puncture the water in a synchronized vertical motion. One need not be uber-athletic or fit to succeed in a dragon boat, and the club welcomes a diversity of abilities. In fact, the ADBC notes that some of its members were in chemotherapy or in various stages of recovery when they began paddling. “You feel powerful,” says member Rita Sonntag. 

Kirk remembers a time when a few midshipmen from the Naval Academy showed up to practice with the club. She says the young guns were certain it would be a piece of cake since they were “paddling with a bunch of old women,” but, in the end, “we absolutely slayed them.” 

Maureen Rice, club board member and chair of marketing and outreach events, says that as a supporter, she can be a shoulder to lean on at a doctor’s appointment or to bring meals to a friend who is battling the disease, “But what’s so cool about dragon boating for us is that it’s something we can do together that’s really, really fun and really great exercise.” To this point, Kirk adds that while the group doesn’t actually talk much about breast cancer, the ability to confer with others who have been through similar health challenges is an invaluable resource. “There are a lot of choices to be made with treatment, and being able to talk to people who have been confronted with the choices and talked about the choices they made and the reasons for it is very interesting. It does help you see a path,” she says.

The ADBC calls the South Annapolis Yacht Centre in Eastport home and practices on Spa Creek. Members never cease to be amazed by its exciting spot on the Bay including trips down Ego alley with people cheering and waving from the Eastport bridge. Rice admits that oftentimes crew members will check out momentarily to gawk at their surroundings, and a scolding from their volunteer coach, Peter Van de Castle, inevitably follows. On the flip side, there are occasions when he’ll take the time to pull the paddlers out of the zone and direct their attention to something amazing he’s spotted. Either way, everyone’s enamored with their water work space.

A competitive nature is a requisite for any team sport, but because the ADBC is about so much more, emotions can run high during practices and regattas. Rice says that she never thought of herself as competitive, but when she’s out on the boat, she transforms as she goes for gold. Longtime club and board member Gail Smith describes the adrenaline rush at the start of a race: “You’re lined up, and your heart’s pounding, and you never know when that horn’s gonna go off, jockeying back and forth.” Surprising for a group of mothers and grandmothers? Not in the ADBC. Smith, a widow and survivor, recalls a special moment after the club raced in the Baltimore Challenge a few years back. Her family came to watch her compete for the first time, and once the race had concluded, Smith’s daughter was sobbing. Smith says the pride her daughter and family had in her meant everything. “We have been through a lot and we really just dig deep to find whatever we need to find,” she says. “There are almost always tears at the end of the race,” Rice says. “To me, every time you sit next to someone who’s just fighting the fight, that’s what it’s all about.” 

The ADBC is eager to grow its membership, which currently stands around 90. While the group would love to find support in the form of commercial sponsors, the real quest is for survivors and supporters who could benefit from the exercise and camaraderie the club wholeheartedly offers. “We are women empowering ourselves, making ourselves healthy by working together,” says Kirk. “In all of our efforts for members and fundraising,” adds Rice, “The biggest message is to come try it, because once you do . . . ” 

And although Rice’s comment trails off, every one of her club mates knows the rest, and the Annapolis Dragon Boat Club would love for you get hooked as well. New members are welcome to learn to paddle on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. at 808 Boucher Ave., Annapolis.

The ADBC will be attempting a Guinness World Record for the fastest half-marathon paddle of a dragon boat crewed entirely by breast cancer survivors on Aug. 26, 8 a.m. at Annapolis City Dock. Learn all about it at