Racing for neuroblastoma research

In dragon boat racing, a strong, steady beat from a drummer is essential to the crew’s success. Over 36 hours on a clear May weekend, a dragon boat crew, 150 strong, were spurred on by a different beat as they paddled day and night for a very sick little boy and a very special cause.

Three year old Oli Plueckhahn is a current inpatient at The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) and was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called neuroblastoma in September 2020. He has undergone chemotherapy, a 10 hour surgery, a stem cell transplant and faces more treatment ahead.

When David Abel first heard about Oli, he wanted to give back in any way he could. With a passion for dragon boating, David, who is the director of a systems integration company, is also the head coach of the Yarra River Dragons.

“My co-worker Shele approached me and said her friend’s son was at the RCH being treated for neuroblastoma. She was planning on doing a charity walk in the Northern Territory which I said our organisation would support her on, but I also wanted to help through my dragon boat club,” said David.

David is no stranger to dragon boat fundraising for the RCH. In November 2018, David was part of the crew called Boating for Brains, who paddled over 563.8km down the Murray River to raise funds for the RCH Neurology Department. Not only did the group raise over $200,000, they also broke the Guinness World Record for longest journey by dragon boat.

With support from David’s dragon boat club, the idea of a 36 hour paddle for Oli was born. The race would be used to fundraise for two causes; a personal fund for Ollie’s family on GoFundMe, and the other for neuroblastoma research at the RCH using MyCause, the fundraising platform partner of the RCH Foundation.

“With MyCause there are no fees associated with it, so when people asked what the overhead would be I was able to say none at all, every cent raised goes to the cause,” said David.

Photo: Yarra River Dragons Facebook Page

David took the opportunity to broaden the event to not just his local club, but to other dragon boat clubs in Victoria. Overall, 150 people from across the state were keen to take part.

Starting at 8am Saturday outside the Yarra Dragons clubhouse in Docklands, the crew paddled up the Yarra River to Herring Island in South Yarra and continued this course for 36 hours continuously until 8pm Sunday.

“There was no fixed duration that a crew member had to be in the boat, so people could pick and choose their hours to accommodate for anyone who wanted to take part – just as long as the dragon boat kept moving.”

Crew members spent up to 12 hours each paddling. For six hours, David manned the sweep which involves steering at the helm and spent the rest of the time riding his electric scooter along the river’s edge to follow the boat’s progress.

Photo: Yarra River Dragons Facebook page

“While I rode along the river, people had stopped to watch the dragon boats go by, and if I heard them ask what it was all about, I’d stop and let them know. I began carrying QR codes with me for both donation pages so people could contribute directly. It was great to have that engagement from the community,” said David.

“I hadn’t met Oli or his family before, but some of his family members were there at the start and end of our journey which was even more motivating,” said David.

After a gruelling 36 hours and many sore limbs, the team’s hard work paid off. So far, $10,500 has been raised which will support research into solid base tumours including neuroblastoma to help find novel treatments for children like Oli.

You can support neuroblastoma research here: