A day with the LongBoat Day volunteers

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I watched the sun rise behind the Vancouver skyline as student volunteers in wetsuits and Hawaiian shirts pulled voyageur canoes through the freezing morning water. Some had been at the Jericho Sailing Center since 3 a.m., and by the time I arrived at 6:30 a.m., the shores were littered with volunteers wearing the iconic Intramurals jackets. There were still two hours before the arrival of the first participants for the LongBoat Day.

LongBoat Day is a UBC tradition hosted by UBC Recreation’s Intramurals program. Canoe teams of eight to ten students race around a set of buoys to retrieve a stick and bring it back to the beach. The race ends when a team member hits a gong with their retrieved stick. In total, students spend approximately one hour at the event; they check in, run, take pictures, enjoy the music and leave. However, for volunteers, Rowboat Day takes months of work and planning to bring the tradition to life.

Student volunteers in wetsuits and Hawaiian shirts pull voyageur canoes through the freezing morning water. Miriam Celebiler / L’Ubyssée

While walking through the facility on the beach, I met one of the event’s student directors, Caroll Gao. Gao said she led a team of six assistant directors with her co-director, Gabriella Guerra, who had her own team of six. When I asked for an interview, she radioed Guerra. They didn’t know how long they would have once the event started, so we got to talking straight away.

Gao and Guerra said they had been planning the event since midsummer. They estimated that throughout the process they had volunteered about 85 hours. Guerra explained the feeling of waking up at 2 a.m. for the day she had been working towards for over a month. “You wake up with a lot of excitement, a little bit of nerves,” she said.

Guerra got involved with Intramurals in 2020 when school was online. “I guess after COVID[-19] I kind of recognized the need for the student body to have events like this that brought back the school spirit and just having fun with your friends.

Gao said volunteering for UBC Rec Intramurals is a rare experience due to the scale of events the mostly volunteer team is able to pull off. The Day of the LongBoat is the largest voyageur canoe race in the world. “It’s kind of unique to experience that while you’re still like your undergrad or your degree.”

Among the many student volunteers were also several former students. As the first teams of attendees slowly began to check in to the event, I had the chance to speak with one of the event MCs through the loud 8am tunes.

On the balcony of the Sailing Centre, overlooking the start beach, stood a very energetic UBC alumnus with a microphone in her hand and a smile on her face. She said to me, “The energy comes from the sun, the beautiful weather and it comes from people and students like you.

The first team of the day arrived with matching costumes. “We need our tutus and tiaras to help us seize the day,” said the group of freshmen attending their first-ever Day of the LongBoat.

Twenty minutes later the canoes were gone. As the teams finished the race and struck the gong, I saw volunteers working from the registration tents to the finish line and everyone looked genuinely happy to be there.

The towing team helps participants into the canoes before the start of the race.

The towing team helps participants into the canoes before the start of the race. Miriam Celebiler / L’Ubyssée

At around 9 a.m., I had planned to get an interview with event director and full-time coordinator of UBC intramural events, Alex Northey. I found Northey on the beach and took a few steps away from the hustle and bustle for a quick chat. As soon as I asked my first question, Northey had to leave to help a team that had capsized unceremoniously.

Five minutes later the boat had been righted and Northey was back to continue the interview. He told me the event was happening with a team of 100 people, most of whom were student volunteers.

“They see that they want to be part of something and they really own something. They own an area and they can run it,” he said.

In the months leading up to the event, UBC Rec’s regular canoe rental business lost all of its equipment in a tragic fire. “We had to do a very broad search, which went from Fort Langley to Kamloops to Whistler, and search for Voyageur canoes.”

Voyager canoes are a specific large type of canoe that are rare to find. When the team was able to get 11 canoes together to make this LongBoat Day happen, it made this year’s event even more special.

Throughout the day there was paddling, dancing, laughter and the occasional capsize. The 100 enthusiastic volunteers without whom none of this would be possible quietly united this event.

“When you wear the [Intramural] jacket around campus, you can see that people feel comfortable coming to talk to you and you can help them in any way,” said Sammy Wilhelm, assistant director of staffing and fourth-year student. “We say it’s the power of the jacket.”

A student volunteer prepares to hand out life jackets to the next set of runners.

A student volunteer prepares to hand out life jackets to the next set of runners. Miriam Celebiler / L’Ubyssée

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