February 19, 2011

Be the Dragon: join a dragon boat team

Dragon Boat  Photo credit: Morgan Crawford
Q: What traditional Chinese festival takes place on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month?
A: The Dragon Boat Festival, and if you start now, you and 21 of your closest friends can be part of something really exciting!
A couple of years ago, some friends and I discovered the DC Dragon Boat Festival – a weekend when the Potomac River fills with colorful 22-person canoes complete with scales and fierce dragon heads.  Why are floating dragons in Washington? They’re looking for blood because this festival is a two-day, high speed, competitive regatta. Naturally, we wanted to be part of the action.
Fortunately for my adventure club, Dragon Boat Festivals are open to community groups as well as corporate and “competition” (i.e serious) teams. When we realized we'd need  25-ish people on our roster (paddlers and alternates) we decided to look beyond the usual adventurous women. We coerced our families and begged our friends until we had enough to form our own team:  “We Be Draggin’.” With half of the crew topping the 50-year mark and the other half covering the span between 12 and 49, “We Be Draggin’” was a motley band and we took to the water like a penguin takes to flight.  But there’s a nice ending to this story so don’t think that age or talent should keep you from jumping into a dragon-headed canoe of your own. (Yes, I’m sure there is a Dragon Boat Festival near you!)
We Be Draggin' after practice
Registration for the DC festival was fast and furious and we were on the waiting list for weeks before making the final roster. Once official though, we were able to sign up for three 1-hour training sessions with an experienced paddler.  (Clearly, this isn't a huge time commitment.)

Practice one:  It was cold. We struggled into our grungy, public-use life vests as a toned team of kids in matching Under Armour and professional paddles ignored us.  Training involved:

Water safety (what to do if you fall out of your boat)
Paddling technique (it’s a full-body experience)
Paddling in unison (harder than you think)
Paddling speed (starting off, race pace, SPRINT!)

Practice two: it was warmer. Our trainer told us we were improving...a bit

Practice three: Initially, our trainer yelled instructions, helped us set the pace and kept us in sync.  By our third session, however, that job fell to the drummer.

The drummer is perched on a tiny “seat” in the bow of the boat (see top photo). She faces the paddlers as well as the steerer who stands in the stern. If the drummer is good, her efforts get the boat off the starting line quickly, establish an efficient race pace, and then inspire the team to a sprint finish. If the race doesn't go well, everyone knows whom to blame.
Festival Day: I was the drummer for our first official race and I was...um...not good.  This proved to be a mixed blessing. Our poor showing in the first heat meant we were placed in one of the lower (slower) divisions. Our second drummer, Eithne, realized that the elderly folk in our boat only had one good burst of speed and decided to forgo the warm up sprints. She also decided that we couldn’t paddle in unison AND change pace so she adopted the “sprint from beginning to end” strategy -- which worked!  We won our next two races and moved into the finals.

We Be Draggin' preparing for finals
Final race: Most teams prepped for finals by working on timing and technique with dry-land drills. We Be Draggin's strengths lay in other areas so we concentrated on storing energy.

As our final race approached, Eithne settled into her drum seat and beat a steady, don't-hurt-yourself pace to get our boat into starting position. The wind over the Potomac calmed and the waves lulled our dragon into thinking we were out of contention. But as soon as the starting gun fired, the combined energy of our frenzied drummer and her crew rocketed us into the river, kept us neck and neck with the two high school teams to our right and left and finally allowed us to inch into the lead.  In the end, We Be Draggin' went home with gold (in the D division).

It was a very good day.

We Be Draggin' takes the lead in the final race    Photo credit: B. Mulvihill

To read a little more about the history of the Dragon Boat Festival, click here.

Check out these resources to find a Dragon Boat Festival near you.  You're just in time to get ready for the 2011 season!



Los Angeles

Nova Scotia



The American Dragon Boat Association

The International Dragon Boat Federation

Worldwide Dragon Boat Calendar