This story begins with my father, who passed away almost 15 years ago. He was a Commander in the US Navy who served in World War II in the Pacific theatre and a proud US Marine who spent 3 years fighting in hand to hand combat in Korea. My father intensely respected chain of command. It had kept him alive in two wars.
After the war my father graduated from Cornell University with his Doctorate (PhD) in Educational Psychology. He was an international expert in literacy.
In short, my father was a soldier who respected chain of command, and a phenomenally gifted reader who loved to teach, learn and read. His background and skills led him to revere the English Monarchy. He used his formidable reading ability to learn everything he could about English history, the Tudor period being his particular specialty.
He believed that the English royal family inherited, in equal measure, privilege and an immense responsibility to serve the people – to use the power for good. That is why the monarchy was important - he believed good monarchs served from a platform most people cannot imagine, and could change the world.
This is the prism through which I experienced the Royal Visit in Dalvey By the Sea in Prince Edward Island. And not the way you might think.
I was bored by the monarchy. Like most children, the endless hours my father talked about the military and the monarchy went in one ear and out the other. I was very close to my father, but when he droned on about the monarchy and Tudor history I tuned out.
And then, one day in May, many years later, the phone rang.
The government in PEI was requesting two dragon boats for something secret. After signing a confidentiality agreement, they informed us (myself and Steve Gallant, my business partner at Dragon Boat East), that the boats were for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to use in a special event at Dalvey.
The logistics went pretty fast. Steve and I went to look at the site and talk to PEI government officials about what they needed. It quickly became clear that this was going to be unlike any event we had ever done. We heard the phases, “we have no idea” and “we have no control over that”, a lot.
Our basic instructions were to show up at Dalvey, a beautiful location in Stanhope National Park, near Cavendish, load two boats with sixteen dragon beasts, sixteen invited athletes from PEI, the Duke and Duchess, the Premier of PEI and his wife, and four security personnel. Steve and I were to helm the boats in a 200m race, the Prince against the Princess. There was a lot of protocol and a fancy reception to go with it.
I was still looking at this as just another boat rental, until I talked to my son, Jack. Since this was all happening on a workday, Steve and I had thought it would be difficult to get 16 Dragon Beasts to take off work and drive to PEI for two days at their own expense. And the royals were just another two people to me at this point.
But early on I confidentially told Jack about the secret mission. (Note: Don’t worry Allison. Jack is a vault, trust me.) Jack, who has many gifts and is always asked to do things, carefully selects his commitments, but he immediately and enthusiastically said, “I’m in.” An HRM firefighter, he immediately went to the phone and traded shifts so he could attend. He then speculated about what the Duke and Duchess would do, whether they would talk to anyone, where they would sit in the boat. When I expressed surprise at his enthusiasm, he said, “are you kidding me. I have a chance to paddle with the two most famous people in the World right now.” And that’s the moment, for me, that the magnitude of our assignment hit home.
Steve and I went from, “how can we get all these people”, to, “how are we going to decide who gets to go.” The Organizers (our primary contact was Allison MacDougall, who works with the Department of Tourism and Culture, and is the calmest person under pressure I ever met) wanted “professional paddlers of a high level”. There are 16 paddlers in our club going to Worlds this August in Tampa, so we decided that was a logical cut off. We proposed that to the organizers, they loved the idea.
Once I was given permission, I sent out the initial email to our 16 worlds participants, plus Jack and my wife Jan, with details for the proposed weekend with royalty. I have sent out many, many emails over the years to this veteran and jaded group. Half respond, some never read them, some respond with prompting over time. Anything important I usually put “IMPORTANT – PLEASE ACTUALLY READ”. This was the first time, ever, that every single person, virtually immediately, responded, “I’m in”. 16 out of 16 within 24 hours. Their reactions and comments were pretty much similar to Jack’s.
One of the tough things was explaining to people the closed nature of the event. This was being conducted in front of 2,000 invited people, at an outdoor reception, and we were being invited to the party. Unfortunately, children, spouses and friends were not included, as this would have swelled the numbers to 6,000 easily. Invited guests only. But our group, once this was explained, was very understanding about this.
There were many details to look after. Steve handled all the media, and there were a lot of interviews and requests. We thought it best to have one voice and he did a great job. (Although Judy MacDonald did one interview. She looked great, handled herself very well. She did say, and I quote, “Kate, her beautiful self", which if you know Judy, was said in an endearing way, but it did get edited out. Go figure.)
We had to send in requested personal information for security purposes. Every person had to have background checks and be credentialed. We had to look after accommodations and uniforms, paddles, lifejackets. Chloe Greenhalgh, the Executive Director of Dragon Boat Canada, phoned immediately and was an amazing support. Chloe’s mindset was, “how can we help”, and “let’s get it done”. Chloe arranged for us to work with Chris Cookson from Regatta Sport to get our National Team uniforms for the event, 3 weeks ahead of schedule, even making extra shirts for the Duke and Duchess, with special tags inside.
Henry Kim from Apex paddles also was a big help, providing 10 paddles at the last minute so everyone would have carbon fiber paddles. Many of our club members use Apex paddles, and his support was greatly appreciated.
Mike English from Adidas also helped out with our “party” attire – making a special order of sporty golf shirts with our club crest on them. We all quickly learned what “smart casual” was via google. We all had matching shirts and pants for the party and looked very sharp when we arrived.
The day before the race Steve, Tim Schaus and I went to Dalvey to set up the course and work with the Prince Edward Island athletes, who would comprise half of the paddlers. It was a beautiful sunny day and the athletes did very well. The athletes from PEI included Adam MacQuade, a Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins, and Jared Connaughton, a Canadian Olympian in the 200m and 4 by 100 relay in track, but none of the PEI athletes had paddled before. They learned very quickly. My only concern was that 4 or 5 athletes were not able to attend the session and would be paddling, for the first time, the next day.
The time line for the big event was that we would drive to a designated site, and then be bussed in to the compound at Dalvey. We would attend a brunch and hang out with the invited guests, then we would change into our racing gear and take a bus to the other side of the lake, where we would wait for the Duke and Duchess, who would greet us, meet the teams, pose for a picture, and then get in the boat. At this point no one had any idea what role the Duke and Duchess would take in the boat. The press releases said they were to steer, and there were YouTube videos showing the Duchess steering, but Steve and I were somewhat concerned about them steering a race, especially given the huge number of credentialed press and the potential for disaster if the boats collided.
Steve and I were to arrive on site early to prepare and dress the boats; we arrived on site at 10 am. It was rainy with blustery winds.
While Steve was off working with his brother David on the boats, I went to check in with Allison. She looked a little upset. She said, “It looks like because of the winds they are canceling the dragon boat races.” I started to offer some alternatives and she cut me off, “it’s not our call, we’ll let you know”.
As I’m processing the impact of the cancellation, a very nice women came up to me and asked where the best place to watch the dragon boat races were. I looked at the shore and saw people positioning their lawn chairs by the lake, 3 hours ahead of the race, in the rain.
I helped the nice women and went to find Steve.
3 hours till race time – or not.