This article was first published in the Oct/Nov 2017 print and e-edition of Global Geneva magazine.

IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE UP IN THE JURA MOUNTAINS (on the shores of the Lac de Joux to be precise) on the first Sunday of every September you might be surprised to see some Chinese dragonboats racing along the lake, cheered on by up to 2,000 people. The locals are used to it by now because the Dragonboat Festival, now known as Paddle for Cancer, has been a ‘must’ on Geneva’s multinational and sporting calendar for the past ten years.

How did it all start? The English Speaking Cancer Association (ESCA), set up at the beginning of this century, offers emotional support, practical help and information in English to cancer patients, their families and friends in Geneva, Vaud and neighbouring France. It has proved a essential line of support for those often newly arrived in Geneva with little French and no family network to help cope when a devastating diagnosis arrives out of the blue.

Apart from counselling, ESCA offers individual peer support, a welcoming Drop-In Centre with a well-stocked library, gym classes, yoga, art therapy and a walking group. All these services are free-of-charge.

Young participant at the dragon boat races. (Photo: Paddling for Cancer)

Dragonboat racing: now part of cancer support world-wide

As ESCA relies totally on donations, it was imperative to raise the funds which would enable it to offer these services. Given that dragonboat racing has become associated with cancer support in other parts of the world, it was decided to try it here. Lake Geneva was a no-no (too much water traffic), but the sporting community of the Lac de Joux was anxious to attract more visitors and offered their facilities – a shoreline base, help from local sports clubs and a security rescue boat, with a warm welcome thrown in.

The association approached various multinational companies not only to sponsor the races but to actively take part alongside all-female teams, groups of friends, sports bodies, student groups, hospital staff members – you name it. If you can raise a team and the entry fee, you can reserve your own boat or fill in spaces which do not yet have the full complement of paddlers.

Dragon boat racing on the Lac de Joux in Switzerland’s Jura mountains. (Photo: Paddling for Cancer)

Volunteers: Food, tents and activities

Companies found that apart from the honour and glory of winning (and they can get very competitive), the day provides an opportunity to bond with colleagues out of the office.

And not just colleagues – there is a mini-regatta for children, plus a host of play activities, face-painting, bake sales, bookstalls and food trucks so that it is also a lovely family outing. Even the family dogs come along to wade into the water, though they have to be dissuaded from swimming out to join their paddling owners.

An army of volunteers sets up tents, registers participants as well as feeds the volunteers and technical teams that come with the boats. They also embrace a myriad of tasks that go along with such an event (one young man regularly volun teers to keep the chemical toilets in good order). There’s even a massage tent to deal with paddlers’ aching muscles.

Dragonboat race on the Lac de Joux. (Photo: Paddling for Cancer)

In 2016 two corporate teams celebrated their ten years of dragonboat racing : Cargill (in spite of their boat sinking during the very first race in 2006 !) and Merck. It was also the tenth anniversary for three Open teams: Dons and Divas, ESCA Paddlers and Bosom Pals Paddlers.

Raising funds that make a difference

For the third consecutive year, the Corporate Fundraisers Challenge Cup was won by Trafigura, which raised an amazing CHF 116,500. This amount was then matched by the Trafigura Foundation. Some other Promotional and Event sponsors made important financial and in-kind gifts which, together with the additional activities around the site, came to just over CHF 69,000.

These funds are allocated to ESCA’s support services and outreach efforts. In addition, a portion of last year’s amount went to a collaborative venture of the Hemato-Oncology Pediatric Unit of the Lausanne CHUV (the Vaud Cantonal hospital) and the University of Lausanne-EPFL to provide a venue, equipment and professional sports therapeutic supervision for children with cancer.

Why has Paddle for Cancer been such a success? The ESCA organisers knew that companies like the opportunity to do something outside the office which is not merely a social event. It can be hard work organizing teams, not to mention the physical demands of paddling – more strenuous than you might think. But the goal of trying to help people in need of support and encouragement makes participants feel that all the effort is worthwhile. And if you can enjoy yourself at the same time, well, what’s not to like?

Sally Alderson is a freelance journalist and longtime ESCA member and volunteer.