Blazing Paddles - How A Military Dragon Boat Team Took On The World

A group of injured and sick service personnel have recently become the first disabled Dragon Boat team to compete in the World Club Crew...

A group of injured and sick service personnel have become the first disabled Dragon Boat team to compete in the World Club Crew Championships in Hungary.

Teams must usually qualify to enter the contest, but the 'Purple Warriors' were given a personal invitation by the Chairman of the International Dragon Boat Federation.

He was so impressed by what the team stood for that he wanted to spread their ethos through the wider Dragon Boating community.

It all began in 2015, when two men had a vision to build a Dragon Boat crew that consisted only of wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.

Now, they have competed against crews from all over the world at Szeged in Hungary.

The difference that being part of the team has had on its members cannot be underestimated, as Colin Llewellyn, a former Scots Guardsman, told Forces News:

“I’m a better person for Dragon Boating, because I put all my aggression and everything I feel into that paddle.

“When I smash that water every single time there’s a bit of me goes with it – the bad side of me goes with it.”

Dragon Boating
Dragon Boating is big in Hungary: the championships kick off with a parade through the town and an aerial display wows the 6,000 paddlers.

Each member has their own reasons for joining the team. For Natasza McClay, who used to serve as part of the Royal Horse Artillery, it’s about her physical journey:

“Why do I Dragon Boat? It happened by accident.

“The physical side is hard for me, but I love it. When I boat its the only time the pain’s not screaming in my head.

“When I’m racing down the course it’s the only time – and I think that’s just the passion coming out.

 “When I come out of that boat, it doesn’t matter whether I walk or crawl, I’ve always got a big smile on my face – every single time”.

But before the Warriors race, an ancient Chinese tradition must be honoured. Each paddler receives a pearl for representing their country and must wear it throughout the event.

Dragon Boating
Dragon Boating originates from Southern China and is a team sport that encompasses elements of power, speed, synchronization and endurance.

For Colin, Dragon Boating has been a huge part of his mental recovery:

“I have a mental disease called PTSD, and if you’d asked me two years ago would I be doing Dragon Boating, sitting in Hungary about to compete, I’d have said you were off your head.

"I was in a bad place then. I don’t like talking about it

“Without this – without this sport – without this family and my family – I wouldn’t be here.”

Forces News reporter Hannah King caught up with the team on race day:

Storming the start, the team's race plan fell into place with military precision. 

However, the race was not all about winning, as the founder of the 'Purple Warriors', Nigel Bedford, highlighted: "That race was one of our finest and it was our first 10-man. I don’t care if we finished last and then we had the benefit of an early bath.

"[It’s] immensely rewarding when you get them on the water and they paddle like a demon team and show unimpaired crews that their impairments are peripheral – what matters is they’re in a boat together."

The 'Purple Warriors' were particularly proud of one crew member in their first race - the team’s new drummer and Colin’s stepdaughter, Terri. 

Colin said: "That 10-man team really held it together and this wee girl here – proud of her."

The 'Purple Warriors' return home 'exhausted but proud', having shown what can be achieved as a team, regardless of the challenges they face.

Dragon Boating