Three years ago, Linda Kuska had one fear about the soon-to-launch Fanshawe Dragon Boat Festival — that being nobody would actually want to come out and see the show.
Heading into this year’s festival, set for Fanshawe Lake on Saturday (June 14), Kuska, event co-chair, is confident that concern has been put to rest.
“Our biggest fear was that nobody would want to come do it. Well that has been proven so wrong, very wrong,” Kuska said. “Going into our third year, there are a lot of teams, companies, families that get together just because of this event. It is pretty cool to watch.”
This year the festival has 57 teams competing, including 12 hospital teams, seven junior teams, and for the first time, two teams from Toronto are taking part.
Those 57 teams translate into approximately 1,800 paddlers expected for the festival. In addition to that, an estimated 1,500 spectators are also expected, although the number could be even higher as this year coincides with free entry into the conservation area’s family day.
Racing starts at 8:30 a.m., a half-hour later than last year’s festival. That little change, along with some other tweaks, were constituted to make things run even smoother.
And in this case, smoother means moving a couple thousand people into the park, more or less, at the same time.
“This year we have opened the back entrance as well so people can get in, then have the buses drop them off at the water’s edge,” Kuska said. “That might be a little more convenient for people than fighting in from Clarke Road. Hopefully that lessens the congestion.”
Adding to the festival are the 25 food vendors that will be on site, including Kelsey's, the Dawghouse and Sweet Onion Grill. There will be clothing and information vendors, even one from Victoria, B.C., that specifically sells a lot of dragon boat-related jewelry.
Another way to gauge the popularity of the festival is in the money that has been raised.
The Fanshawe Dragon Boat Festival was designed to be a fundraiser for the Rowbust dragon boat team. In the first two years, the festival has raised $31,000 for the team.
Last year, the festival also committed to supporting the Gene Goodreau Patient Assistance Fund. Having raised $5,000 last year, Kuska said the goal is to raise $8,000 this year.
The important thing about the Goodreau fund is the money stays in the Forest City at the London Regional Cancer Program. The program benefits local patients and families dealing with various forms of cancer.
While money raised is one measure of popularity, money spent is another indicator. Kuska estimates the dragon boat festival costs about $70,000 to put on, making the generosity of sponsors and donors offering in-kind support essential to making the day a success.
“We have been amazingly successful. Each year Loraine Warnock, my fellow co-chair, and I are blown away by how successful and how much fun people are having for this,” Kuska said. “From year one to year three, it is easier to get sponsors, easier to get the in-kind stuff. There is no explanation needed, in many cases it is just a quick phone call or email to people and they are ready to help.”
While raising money has always been a big part of the festival’s mission, it is perhaps secondary to the goal of spreading the word about dragon boat racing.
Kuska said the idea is to “get people out on the water instead of sitting on their computers and thinking about work.”
While it can be easy to measure fundraising success, determining whether public awareness is growing is somewhat more subject. Kuska said there are “a couple of clubs out at the lake,” including the London Dragon Boat Club, which has gained members over the past several years.
Even Rowbust, which has been around for 15 years, has seen its membership increase.
Those growing numbers, Kuska said, are possible because dragon boating is truly something anyone can do.
“It doesn’t matter your fitness level, if you want to come out recreationally once a week, there is a team for you. If you want to work really hard and compete at the highest levels, there is a team for you. It really is a lot of fun and people need to have more fun in their lives.”