On a sunny Thursday afternoon at the Prince Rupert yacht club, Prince Rupert’s dragon boating team, the Rainbow Warriors, are getting ready to practice their strokes on the water.
The group lines up alongside their boat, standing two-by-two along the dock’s edge. Carefully, the 18 women lower themselves into the boat where they sit shoulder-to-shoulder, each grasping a wooden oar, awaiting orders from boat’s bow.
At the front of the boat, Leeanda Wahl pays extra close attention. As one of the lead paddlers, it’s Wahl’s responsibility to maintain a steady rowing rhythm. If she loses her stroke, the effects will ripple back through the other paddlers and they will lose momentum.
The paddlers receive their orders: first pushing away from the dock, then paddling backward to orient themselves. Then, once given the signal, they begin their deep strokes forward. Wahl leads the way, leaning as far forward as she can and pulling deep to move as much water as possible. The boat begins to move forward, slowly at first, but gradually picking up speed as the paddlers continue to move in sync.
The Rainbow Warriors have come a long way since their first practice in 2003. Wahl, who hails from Digby Island, joined the team when she was invited by her friend and neighbour Lori McWilliams. McWilliams — who is a breast cancer survivor — was starting the team with a group of women who had either survived cancer themselves, or had a personal connection to it.
Wahl — the fourth of six children — lost her own mother to cancer when she was five years old, and so when she heard about what the group was doing, she was happy to get on board. Wahl, who grew up climbing trees and enjoying picnics on Digby Island, hadn’t heard of dragon boating before then. However, she was excited to have the opportunity to try something new.
“I’ve always liked exercising and so when I found out that this was a good workout I decided to go for it,” she said. “I’ve never kayaked or canoed before, but I felt I could do it.”
That original group did not own a boat, so they would meet at the old recreation centre where they would practice their strokes by sitting on exercise balls and pretend paddle with dowels tied together by rope. While they may have lacked water, the simple method helped the group to establish rhythm and, more importantly, camaraderie.
“I was young, and you’ve got older women there and you see the struggles that these lovely people have gone through, and you can just see life in them,” Wahl said. “They were saying, ‘We’re going to get a boat, and we’re going to paddle and we’re going to learn how to paddle!’”
The group gradually raised money and was able to purchase their own boat. The Rainbow Warriors’ inaugural run went from the Rushbrook Floats to the yacht club, and they were rewarded with a double rainbow for their efforts.
“There were cheers of happiness and cheers of achievement,” said Wahl. “It was amazing.”
Today, the group tries to participate in regattas happening in the northwest. Wahl said the Rainbow Warriors always try to compete in the annual Terrace competition, and that some of the women row for a regional team that competes at the senior games each year.
More than competing however, Wahl said its the interaction with other strong women, survivors, that continues to inspire her to this day.
“I have learned courage from our lady survivors,” she said. “I’ve learned friendship, I love them all and am very proud of them. Just knowing that there is survival after breast cancer is huge for me.”
Wahl also said the group is important because it represents part of the change that has taken place with regard to breast cancer awareness. She said that her mother passed away quickly after her diagnosis, but if she had been in the same circumstances today, the results may have been different.
“I wholeheartedly believe that with the medicine, the money raised through Relay For Life, and the research, she would have been here,” she said.
So Wahl will continue to dip her paddle in the water, wave the flag for her team, and continue to preach the dragon boating gospel.
“If you’re out there on the water and you see us having a great time, give us a call and see if you can come try it out,” she said.