A new team competing in this year’s Dragon Boat Festival is sending an inspiring message that having a disability isn't going to hold them back.

With life jackets on and paddles in hand, Team Oil City Crew Dragon Sight hits the water along with several other paddlers in the 16th annual Dragon Boat Festival. But the team’s paddlers are unlike any other – 80 per cent of the members are visually impaired.

“We can’t see but we can paddle. It’s a very interesting concept,” said assistant team manager Terry Schmolcke.

“Our head coach has coached a visually impaired team in Vancouver and I coach another team and we do a drill in our boat where I ask people to take their sunglasses off and either blindfold or close their eyes and paddle for 200 strokes so they feel the water, they feel their bodies.”

Schmolcke says group members are trained one-by-one on dragon boat race techniques. The boat also has a speaker system to make it easier for racers to listen to calls.

The team has only been training for just over a month and for some, it’s the first time they’ve ever been on the water.

“There’s quite an adrenaline rush when you get out of there in the heat of the race,” described first-time dragon boat racer Mike Jensen.

“We’ve been practicing once a week. Those practices were fairly intense, high-energy. It was a good.”

Jensen has gone canoeing and kayaking before but says this weekend’s festival is the most competitive water sport he’s participated in.

Lorne Webber says not being able to see where he’s paddling enhances the overall experience.

 “It’s very exciting. People might wonder how exciting rowing can be for someone whose blind but there’s a lot of things your body can feel. You can feel the boat surging ahead as people paddle and you can feel the water as you build up speed, the paddle interacts differently with the water as you go forward,” Webber said.

“You can really get a lot of sensation going even without sight going. It’s quite exciting I’ve enjoyed myself out.”

Schmolcke says the team focused on timing for this year’s races and says next year they’ll work on different techniques.

“Next season we’ve had a lot of people say they’d like to come back so we’ll start in a dry land program over winter and then get them more familiar with the lake again in the spring and work on things like powers and a different start. For this festival we wanted just the timing and to keep up with other boats and they’re doing tremendously well and most importantly they’re having so much fun and we’ve made new friends.”

For the first time in its 16-year history, the races aren’t being held on the North Saskatchewan River due to high water levels.

The move to Telford Lake in Leduc is one that left Team Oil City Crew Dragon Sight relieved.

“The current is very strong and physically they have not been training so we were extremely worried about that,” Schmolcke said.

“When they announced that the festival would be here we were so happy that the visually impaired team would not have anything else to worry about.”

A wave nearly capsized the boat during a race Saturday, but the team recovered and still crossed the finish line.

“I’m quite proud of my team for the effort they’ve put in considering how little experience we had,” Jensen said.

There are 50 teams competing in this year’s races.

Festival organizers say they’re impressed with what Team Oil City Crew Dragon Sight is bringing to the race.

“They are strictly doing it from faith. They are doing it from the incredible training that is offered to them. It’s just amazing under the right tutelage and the right mentoring, what anybody can do,” said Blain Selinger with the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival.

“As I say to anybody, any age, any shape, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do the sport really is open for anybody. If you don’t know that they didn’t have that handicap you probably couldn’t pick them out from a majority of the new teams. They look amazing.”

With files from Amanda Anderson