For people strolling Lapp’s Quay and Albert Quay in Cork the long boats knifing through the water, crews paddling furiously, are a familiar sight. Don’t feel the opening sequence of Hawaii Five-O is an unfair comparison, because it’s one made by the Cork Dragons themselves.
They’re the Leeside outpost of dragon boat racing: a sport with a difference. Orla Riordan of the Cork Dragons explains: “This was started by the HSE when they found that women and men who have had breast cancer benefit hugely from the motion of the paddling, that was the beginning of it.
“The first committee was set up about 12 years ago, and then it grew and grew from there.”
The Cork Dragons — like their counterparts in other parts of the country — have a particular demographic providing their membership.
“It’s open to anyone who’s had any form of cancer,” says Riordan, “though the exercise is probably most beneficial to people who have had breast cancer. We also welcome family members of those with cancer — it’s very inclusive.
“It’s a fantastic way for people to meet up and train together, to have a chat. The whole point is to let people come along and if they want to talk they can, and if they don’t to that’s fine too.
“But that’s not the primary reason everyone gets together. We go out and get exercise — with the great summer we had last year, for instance, we were on the water every Tuesday night for a couple of hours and it was great.
“If you come along you can’t tell who’s had cancer and who hasn’t, it’s a hugely diverse group from age 18 up.” There’s a competitive element to the sport, adds Riordan. “We have our own regatta every year, the Rebel Regatta (this year’s event is down for August 17), but there are regattas in Limerick, Clonmel, up in Donegal, all over.
“Teams come down to us for the Rebel Regatta — we had about 10 here for the last one from all over Ireland. There are races on the Lee, and it’s very competitive. And that’s handy because it means that if people want to be competitive they have a focus for their training, too.”
There are different categories — a race with breast cancer survivors only, and one with crews made up of survivors and non-survivors. Last year the Cork Dragons went to Verona in Italy to take part in the international breast cancer survivors’ competition: little wonder they take such care of their boats.
We’re heavily linked to Meitheal Mara, they look after our boats, and once the end of March comes the boats will go back into the water — you can often see them in the city, moored over by Lapp’s Quay. They’re big machines: a boat can carry 20, 24 people.
“We’ve raised funds as well for a trailer that the boats can be carried on — that’s a big help because it means you’re much more mobile in what you can do, obviously, for competitions and so on.
“This is the first year the Dragons have undertaken winter training — we moved the boats out to Farran Woods and we train on a Saturday or a Sunday, depending on the weather.”
Part of the fundraising involved an innovative initiative, she adds.
“Last year we had a venture much like the movie Calendar Girls’, we released a calendar with a picture of a member of the club for each month, and obviously each of those people had had breast cancer, male and female. It was very successful — we had a big launch in Tequila Jack’s on Lapp’s Quay, it sold a lot of copies and raised a good bit of money, so we were delighted with that.”
Sadly Maria Logan, who was Miss December in the calendar, has passed away since that launch. Riordan describes her passing as one of “the first big losses since Tara” — founder member Tara Sheridan, who has also passed away. Their boat Tara Warrior Princess is named after her.
“The whole ethos is you can come along if you’ve had cancer or if a relative of yours had had cancer and it’s a good space. You can join in and get fit, you can have fun, you can have a chat and a cup of tea, you can have a cry if you want — but that isn’t necessarily the focus. All the people who are there understand because they’ve been through it themselves.
“As a group there’s great fun. Only recently everyone went down to west Cork overnight and it was great, out on Lough Hyne to see the luminescence in the water. Fantastic.”