The Duke and Duchess appeared suddenly walking with a military guard and various dignitaries down the road about 100 meters from where we were lined up. It was a very surreal moment. Prince William broke away from the entourage, walked up to me and shook my hand. I said, "it is an honor to meet you your Royal Highness.". He looked at the crew and asked, "are you the winning side?". The crew answered that we were. He said he understood there were several World gold medallists in the crew and he expected victory. I also introduced the honorary captain, Olympic sprinter Jared Connaghton. Steve and I presented the Duke and Duchess with the special Canadian Team racing shirts many of us will be wearing at the 2011 Worlds.
I asked the Duke if he had any concerns steering in the wind. The ensuing exchange has been reported by various sources, including the IDBFmagazine, but it actuallywent like this,
"Your Royal highness, do you have any concerns about steering in this wind?"
"Well, I've never steered before, but I'll give it a go."
"Well, you can also lead us from the drummer's seat or by paddling with us, whatever you would like."
"I will paddle or steer, but I am not sitting out in the drummers seat (said with a bit of a grin)"
"Your Royal Highness, it is fantastic you are willing to paddle with us, our crew will be very excited to race with you in the boat."
"Excellent, well let's meet the crew then."
He then walked up to the crew and shook each person's hand, looking them in the eye, engaging each person. It was unbelievable how he did it. He turned each exchange into something personal. We posed for a team shot, and then started to load the boat.
I knew the Duke had paddled before, because Mike Haslem had briefed me and even sent me pictures of him racing dragon boat at school, so I just put him in the boat. I put him behind 2009 World Premier 500m Gold medallist, 6 foot 3 inch Sean Gibson, because I knew Sean would give him lots of room. The Duke sat on a bench with Barry Ring, who as mentioned previously was paddling in the spot originally held by Bruce Chiasson. It worked out though, Bruce, now in the other boat, ended up front and center in "the shot"- the picture published everywhere of the royal couple hugging after the race. My son Jack was in the seat next to his basketball buddy Sean and ended up in many good pictures paddling with the Prince.
We pushed off the dock a little ahead of the other crew. The Duke was right in stroke and had no problem at all, he was a pretty good paddler. I wanted to kill a bit of time, plus with all the new paddlers in the boat I wanted to see how the boat would run, so we did a practice start. The boat leaned a lot to the right, as I suspected, and the Duke was sitting a couple inches too far toward the middle of the boat ( he was in seat 5 on the left), but I didn't know how to say anything to him so I just told Beasts Sue Slimming, Jan Oakley and Sean Gibson to get way up on the left, and Dave Gallant, Jack and Barry to get off the side. It was better in the race.
Steve Gallant's boat was now loaded and the Duchess was steering. She looked really relaxed steering up to the line, Steve was in seat 10 just in case. The starting line was in the windiest part of the lake, and when it came time to turn the Duchess had some trouble, understandably so. She asked to switch with Steve, a manoever not easily done on the water at the best of times, never mind on a very windy day on National television, when you cannot touch the person. Normally, when you move in the boat, you will put your hands on the shoulders or back of the person you are switching with, there is very little room. Somehow Steve made the switch and kept everyone dry, but I have seen the exchange on television and he looks like he is playing twister with the Duchess.
The Duke seemed to really like the fact that the the Duchess was now paddling against him, he was very animated and talking to her. Mike Haslem lined the boats up and started the race. My first thought was to find my race line and look at Steve's boat and be sure I had it correct. A collision would not be good, and there was only a 3 bouy finish line and no intermediate bouys. Once I was sure of my line, my next thought was, we are too far ahead. I called to the crew to relax, just reach it out, which my guys did, but the Duke would have none of it. "go harder", he yelled, "they are gaining". Meanwhile, the Duchess, paddling in the 10 seat behind a person who had never been in a dragon boat before, was getting soaked every stroke. We were all really impressed that the Duchess would participate like that. They both clearly enjoyed themselves. I remember thinking that this was probably the only activity they would do on this trip with people their own age.
The Duke's crew won, by a couple of seats, and he basked in the victory, visibly pleased. We went into the wharf, and the Duke and Duchess got out of the boats, and she grabbed him and jokingly went to throw him into the water, a movement the Duke turned into a hug. The rare display of affection by the royal couple became the iconiic image of the Royal Visit. Several Beasts are clearly visible in the picture, which was published in the Globe and Mail, People Magazine, numerous other magazines, and the cover of the IDBF montlhy magazine. At the after party at the Worlds in Tampa, they had several IDBF magazines on every table and Bruce Chiasson, front and center on the cover, felt like a celebrity as people kept staring at him in disbelief.
And just like that, after a wave, they were gone, off to accept champagne from Olympic Gold Medallist Heather Moyse, and then to taste lobsters, and greet people, and make speeches.
We went to the media tent, took some pictures, and then changed back into our dress clothes. We were cold, wet and happy. Our mood, to a person, was, "did that really happen?" We hung out for awhile, and then took the buses back to our cars.
The story ends with my mother. Three weeks after the event we are watching the CBC coverage on my DVR, pointing things out, laughing and answering her questions. I am telling her about the magic that is the Royals. I am a convert. You can tell she is simply amazed - her son,grandson and daughter in law, along with many of my life long friends, paddling along side the future King of England. She just shakes her head in astonishment. "if only your father could see this."
Somehow, Mom, I bet he did.