A youth team competes in the Inner Harbour during the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival. The festival society kicked off its summer season today.

Dragon boating season kicks off in Victoria

Annual festival attracts thousands of visitors to downtown Victoria in August

It’s kind of like a three-headed dragon, just not as scary.

The annual Victoria Dragon Boat Festival features the races themselves, which attract 2,500 or so competitors to the Inner Harbour for one mid-summer weekend. This year’s event, set for Aug. 16 to 18, also features a cultural, food and small business component centred at Ship Point.

Then there’s the heartstring-tugger: the fundraising aspect for the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

“The festival has raised $438,000 over five years for the foundation, and the great thing is all the money stays in Victoria,” said Mark Mawhinney, board chair for the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival Society.

The society hosted a kickoff breakfast Wednesday at The Inn at Laurel Point to talk about supporting local business as well as how it encourages fitness and health in the community.

The competition provides a huge boost to the local economy – of the 2,500 paddlers about 1,500 will arrive from out of town, staying two or three nights or more and filling up local hotel rooms. As well, Mawhinney said, an estimated 90,000 people will watch the races, take in musical and cultural entertainment and browse through the multitude of onsite vendor offerings.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about doing is trying to get some sort of measurement of the economic impact of people coming down to the site,” he said. “We may try to partner with UVic or Royal Roads (University) on that.”

The festival has major sponsors in Canada Dry and Fairway Markets, but could find others with some definitive numbers close at hand.

While the festival is free for the public to attend, Mawhinney is proud of the fact the society is mainly self-sufficient and need not rely on government funding to stay afloat, so to speak.

Operating money comes primarily from paddlers’ entry fees and sponsorships and any grant money secured goes toward paying co-op students to stage the weekend events.

That financial health helped the society recently purchase three new boats to be used in the 2013 competition, Mawhinney said. Boats are generally rented every year for the festival. The society’s goal is to not only avoid that cost, but to have its own boats available for use around the community at other times of the year.

Also of note is the fact the society chose to source the boats from local manufacturers rather than purchase the newer style racing boats.

“The boats are made in Sidney by Oceanus (Plastics), the dragon heads and steering oars are made in Shawnigan Lake and even the seats are made with recycled material in the Keating area,” said Glenys Haskins, the society’s general manager. “These boats are designed more for open water. They’re a little more stable and wonderfully suited to our event and our paddlers.”

It’s clear from the numbers of teams entering this competition – upwards of 80 teams are expected for this year’s 19th annual festival – that the sport has taken off.

“It really the most accessible sport that I’ve ever been involved in,” said Haskins, a paddler herself. “With dragon boating, it’s a sport that you feel like a winner all the way through.”

Next up for the society is the July 15 launch of the Lights of Courage campaign with Fairways. The fundraiser for the B.C. Cancer Foundation sees grocery store customers purchase colourful Chinese paper lanterns at the till, write messages of hope or remembrance for cancer patients on them, then hang them at the Ship Point site.

For more information on the festival, visit victoriadragonboat.com.

ddescoteau@vicnews.com

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