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The Queens Jubilee River Regatta

This is Dragon Buster Leanne Jacobsen’s story – when she was invited to join other Canadian Breast Cancer Survivor team members in a dragonboat on the Thames for the Queen’s Jubilee…

When the email arrived in Leanne Jacobsen’s inbox offering a position in a dragon boat crew for the the Thames Jubilee flotilla, the experienced paddler didn’t hesitate. She signed up on the spot. “It’s an amazing opportunity,” the West Vancouver, B.C., resident recounts, “and something we’ll remember our whole lives.”

On June 3, she and 13 other paddlers from the Vancouver area, all dressed in red-and-white shirts adorned with maple leaves will use a borrowed English dragon boat to take part in one of the most spectacular events of the central four-day Diamond Jubilee weekend in June.

Named ‘Abreast From the West’ because they are all breast cancer survivors—Jacobsen signed up on the 10th anniversary of her treatment—the newly formed crew will be the only all-Canadian boat among 1,000 vessels.

It won’t be a relaxing Sunday jaunt on the Thames River. While a typical dragon boat race is a 500-m sprint, this extravaganza, made up of everything from kayaks and tall ships to the Queen and her family sitting on a custom built royal barge, will last around 22 gruelling kilometres from staging areas to the finale. Just to add to the pressure, they’ve been told their vessel will be “at the front of the pack, just behind the barge holding the bell [specially commissioned to peal during the event] and just ahead of the royal barge,” Jacobsen says.

The Abreast From the West odyssey started last year when Heather Trenholm, the team’s captain, heard about the Thames flotilla while dragon boating in Malaysia. She put in an application online and on Dec. 31 she got the much-coveted invitation. She immediately sent out emails asking for volunteers. It didn’t take long to fill all the positions with experienced dragon boaters from the area. Their ages range from the mid forties to early seventies.

Right now they are building up their endurance on the Fraser River, practicing two times with their own teams and then once a week with the Thames crew. Jacobsen says it’s unlikely they’ll get a training run on a waterway known for its strong currents and eddies, since they’ll arrive a few days before the event. (They are paying their own way over.)

But they have figured out one, very important, manoeuvre: how to take pictures of the big event. “We’ve done drills with each of us having a sit out time of two to three minutes per bench to take photos,” Jacobsen explains. “This is definitely on our agenda.”

One of the 1,000-plus vessels that took part in the Diamond Jubilee Thames flotilla was a dragon boat from Vancouver, crewed by breast cancer survivors. Abreast From the West endured awful conditions—a cold rain drenched everyone for most of the event—while having to maintain a consistent paddling speed and position in the flotilla. One of the Abreast paddlers was Leanne Jacobsen, who recounts what she and her fellow Canadians saw and experienced while travelling through the heart of London:

This experience was incredible on so many levels. Visually it was like being dropped into the painting by Canaletto, which inspired the flotilla; the colours and shapes of a multitude of different people; powered boats set against the backdrop of so many iconic London landmarks, like the parliment buildings, Big Ben and Tower Bridge–all framed by thousands upon thousands of people standing on the banks of the river or crowding onto balconies. The noise of the cheering crowds, the chimes of the bells and the horns of the vessels accompanied the boats the entire length of the flotilla.

Passing the Queen and Prince Phillip, I felt so proud to be representing Canada as we honoured her 60 years of service. Her endurance at 86 years of age, never once sitting down as she in turn honoured all of us who participated in the flotilla, was humbling.

Finally, as we landed our dragon boat after a gruelling 22 km in the cold and driving rain, I felt great pride in my teammates, who did not falter and who showed the world that overcoming a cancer diagnosis can make one stronger. It can fill you with a passion to experience all that life may present.

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