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Training helps dragon boat teams paddle to help veterans

Jonelle Battaglia’s commands were authoritative without sounding harsh.

“Right side, push away,” she said in a firm voice, causing 10 paddlers on one side of the dragon boat to shove off from the dock Monday at Vancouver Lake.

“Paddles up,” she ordered from her helm spot in the boat’s back, prompting all 20 paddlers to prepare to dig into the water.

“Take it away,” she commanded as the 20 paddlers immediately started propelling their dragon boat through the choppy waters at Vancouver Lake.

Battaglia, a member of the Catch 22 dragon boat team at Vancouver Lake, is helping community members get ready for the July 13 Paddle For Life event at Vancouver Lake Regional Park.

Her team’s name comes from the 22 people who compete in a full-size dragon boat: 20 paddlers, a helm or tiller who steers the boat’s tiller, and a caller who keeps everyone synchronized and uses a drum during competitions.

“My job is to make sure everybody is safe,” Battaglia said before taking the 20 paddlers onto the lake Monday afternoon.

Dragon boat racing dates back more than 2,000 years to China. Decorative, colorful dragon heads and tails typically aren’t attached to the boats during practices but will be on full display for the July 13 event.

Paddle For Life, a nonprofit organization, was established in 2009 to support local charities. In the past, Paddle For Life has raised money for breast cancer survivors and disabled military veterans.

This year’s event will raise money for the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, which helps veterans and their families obtain benefits, services and resources to meet basic needs. Each year, the center provides support for more than 3,000 veterans and their families.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle will start this year’s Paddle For Life at 9 a.m. and likely will be asked to pound on one of the boats’ drums.

Clark County Public Health has posted caution signs at Vancouver Lake due to possible bloom of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which produces toxins that can be harmful to people.

Laboratory results should be available early next week. Even if testing confirms blue-green algae, it shouldn’t affect the event, except competitors and spectators will be discouraged from dunking themselves in areas where blue-green-colored scum is present.

All paddlers must wear personal floatation devices during practices and races.

Dee Anne Finken, a paddler for Catch 22, said the Paddle For Life event will include two divisions.

Club teams are more competitive racers and include Catch 22; Pink Phoenix, a breast cancer survivors team out of Portland; and Golden Dragons, another Portland team whose members are at least 50 years old.

“Most of us practice about three times a week,” Finken said. “Some teams are more competitive than others.”

Community teams are less serious and may include members who have not competed in a dragon boat race before. Paddle For Life provides two training sessions so beginning paddlers know what to expect come race day.

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain will participate in a community team with police officers and assistant prosecuting attorneys. Another community team, Young and Rest of Us, is representing the Veterans Assistance Center.

Heavenly Dragons from Peace Lutheran Church in Vancouver will paddle in honor of Ozzie Kaul, who died last year at age 96. Kaul was a World War II Seabee, short for a member of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion. Heavenly Dragons has so many paddlers that it will field two boats.

Finken said club teams will enter 21 boats in this year’s Paddle For Life while 17 or 18 community teams will compete.

Community teams will compete in smaller boats with 10 paddlers. Club teams primarily will race in 20-paddler boats, which are more than 40 feet long. Fully loaded, the bigger boats can weigh as much as 2 tons.

Both community and club teams will compete on a straight 250-meter course.

One highlight of this year’s event will be the Battle of the Branches, featuring dragon boats flying flags of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Seabees, with their paddlers vying for bragging rights.

Community teams each paid $250 to participate while club teams, racing in 20-paddler boats, paid either $700 or $800, depending on when they registered. Club teams entering 10-paddler boats paid $400.

Finken said the 2017 Paddle For Life raised about $15,000, and organizers already have exceeded that amount for this year’s event.

“It’s been impressive, the interest,” she said.

Registration is closed, but people are encouraged to make donations to the Veterans Assistance Center online at

Corporate sponsors for the event include Frito-Lay, Tidewater Transportation and Terminals, Waste Connections and Columbia Bank.


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