Friday, October 24, 2014

Why Dragon Boating? It's more than just paddling

“Paddles… Up!”

The coach’s voice rings through the boat and across the chilly night air of the harbor. Twenty paddles rise in unison, poised for the first clean stroke of what promises to be another tough practice for a finely tuned team.

“Take it away!”

Twenty paddles jab the water together, pull powerfully to the finish of the stroke, and exit the frothy brine together. Twenty paddles reach in perfect precision for the next stroke, and repeat, and repeat again, a lesson in teamwork and well-rehearsed harmony among athletes eager to challenge themselves to reach the top….

Errrr!…. the needle scratches across the record…

That is the ideal anyway. In fact that’s what many North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club (NPSDBC) members thought they would experience when they joined the club. A simple “hut! hut! hut!” and everyone on their way in exact precision. But it’s not that easy. Twenty different paddling styles enter the boat with twenty different people, as do twenty different ideas of perfect timing and twenty different levels of fitness.

And, holding a four and a half-foot wooden tool of the trade, each paddler is within accidental striking distance of the paddler in front, and a potential victim of the paddler behind, if there’s the slightest variation in timing or form.

But what paddlers discover in Dragon Boating, while seeking that perfect union and that perfect stroke, is something even better than their own athletic performance. Better than personal achievement. Better even than a gold medal.

“The coolest thing, the thing that makes me most proud to be a part of this team, is that there is a spot for anyone willing to commit themselves to the team and work hard to support the team’s mission”, said Bill Walker, volunteer coach of Team Tsunami, one of two practice groups that make up NPSDBC. “Age doesn’t matter, fitness level doesn’t matter, past athletic accomplishment doesn’t matter. The diversity of this crew is amazing, with the single goal of working hard for the success of the team.”

Dragon Boating originated in China thousands of years ago. According to one legend, Qu Yuan, a beloved poet and statesman, took his own life in a river after an intrigue-filled quarrel with the emperor. The citizens manned their boats and tried to save him, beating their paddles on the water to keep the fish from eating him, but to no avail. The millennia-old tradition of the dragon boat festival, said to have originated in Qu Yuan’s honor, has spread around the globe. Festivals abound in Asia, Europe, North America, and New Zealand / Australia and are not just about racing; they celebrate the origins of the sport and bring together people from widely diverse cultures and athletic backgrounds. Still, the competition can be fierce, as crews focus their year-round training efforts on a few minutes of racing at Spring and Summer festivals.

That ideal of twenty perfectly-timed paddles and bodies, moving as one, is still a goal. But team members say it’s more about each participant pushing themselves a little farther at each practice, maybe a little farther than they thought they could go. Some have backgrounds in team or individual sports; some are struggling with injuries or fitness issues, or trying a sport where they can avoid injury as they get older; some have battled fears and personal demons just to be a part of the team. But when you get down to it, they say, it’s not about any of that. They’ll tell you it’s about each one working hard, and trusting their teammates to work hard too, for the good of the crew. When a crew is successful at that, they become more than just a boatload of paddlers; they are a solid team. Practices fly by; they don’t notice the rain, the chilly winter air, the heat of the summer sun, or the cold choppy water splashing in their faces. They may not even notice how hard they’re working.

Our local dragon boaters will tell you what they do notice, too. They do notice how good it feels to work together to get better. They certainly stop to notice the abundant wildlife -- seals on the logs at the marina, eagles overhead, kingfishers screeching as they fight for a meal, herons squawking when startled from their spots on the shore as the crew paddles by. “We notice how lucky we are”, Walker says, “to be on the water together. And more to the point, we notice the big smiles on our own faces when we go home after a good workout together.”

The twenty paddlers in the boat -- practices may include as few as ten or as many as twenty-two -- are joined by a caller, who sits in the bow facing the crew shouting instructions and setting the beat, and a steersperson (“till”), who stands in the stern using a long, heavy oar to set the boat’s course. Callers and tills have responsibility for the precision and safety of the team, and are specifically trained for their jobs in the boat.

On race days at festivals around the world, plain-looking practice boats are decorated with beautifully-painted traditional dragon heads and tails, and the caller beats a large drum to help set the stroke pace. Dragon Boat Festival season runs from Spring through late Summer, and events feature a full day, or multiple days, of continuous racing, often among thousands of competitors. Competing teams are divided into women’s, mixed, and open divisions at levels from recreational to elite, and multiple-elimination heats run all day. In 2014, NPSDBC teams traveled to festivals in Olympia, Kent and Seattle, with some members being picked up by other clubs and masters teams for festivals farther afield.  

Team Stayin’ Alive practices three days per week in Spring, Summer and Fall, takes the Winter off, and gears up for the festival racing season as soon as they get back on the water. Stayin’ Alive practices focus on preparing for competitive racing, increasing endurance, working on form and having fun. Team Tsunami practices year-round, three days a week, at a more strenuous intensity level, and has a stated mission to foster and develop paddlers of all skill levels, while fielding the most competitive racing teams possible .

Both groups are all about fitness, friendship, and fun; they welcome new members of all ages and physical abilities. Paddling experience is not required. Visitors may try the sport at no charge for the first three practices. Club membership is $75 per year plus a share of festival entry fees for those who attend. Paddles and lifejackets are available to borrow from the club.

More information on North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club can be found at . To set up your first visit, please contact Cathie Harrison (Team Tsunami), or Norma Lisherness (Team Stayin’ Alive),

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Water Safety: Know and Prepare for the Risks

On the first weekend of June, near our beautiful Whidbey Island home, two young Navy men stationed at NAS Whidbey went fishing on open water in borrowed kayaks. The bodies of Vinson Ya and Joey Lee were found the next morning, victims of hypothermia and drowning.

These guys had family and friends who loved them, who are stricken by grief at their loss. Could the tragedy have been prevented? That’s unknown, since the only comment from first responders in the local press was “the water is cold”. A little more research by other regional press revealed that their equipment and experience may not have been right for the conditions. But while the town grieved, then got over it when our next big story hit, no comprehensive public statement was made by our fire departments, police, health care professionals, or any public official about how the rest of us can stay safe on the water.

Click here to see the original – and only – article about the tragedy from our local Whidbey News Times staff. The tributes in the Comments section are heart-wrenching.

I wrote up the following few paragraphs last week for the News Times, reflecting simple steps to enhance safety for ourselves and our loved ones on the water. Did Vinson and Joey follow any of these steps? There’s no way to know. If not, there’s still no way to know if doing everything right would have saved them. But the least we can do is to honor their memories by educating ourselves about the risks.

Since the News Times edited some volume from the article, here is the full version:

Water safety begins with knowing the risks
Two weeks ago, our island community suffered another tragic loss when two young Navy men drowned while kayaking off the West side of Whidbey. The grief is immeasurable to their families and friends  – a permanent, life-changing hole ripped in their hearts.  But for the rest of us, like too many other times, we blink our tears away and a deputy tells the paper how cold the water is… and we move on.

This is a challenge to honor these men’s memories by learning how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe on our waters, and it begins with knowing the risks. Whether paddling, motoring or sailing, a healthy fear and thorough understanding of the effects of cold water could save your life.

Our local waters stay between the mid 40s and low 50s, year-round. When immersed, even on a hot summer day, you will be incapacitated in just a few minutes. Your motor skills – swimming, waving for help, even shouting to a rescuer – will be severely compromised. After fifteen minutes you will be approaching hypothermia. Your core temperature begins to drop, and so do your chances of survival.

How does a boater stay safe, without staying home on the couch? Here are seven simple, essential steps to enhancing your safe enjoyment of the water.  

  • Prepare for immersion. Either dress for it, with a neoprene wet suit or waterproof dry wear, or know how you’re going to get out of the water if you go in. Practice reentering your kayak or remounting your SUP board. Do a regular overboard drill on your sail or power boat. Otherwise, stay within 1 or 2 minutes’ swimming distance from shore… much less than 100 yards. 
  • Know the area you’re boating. Check charts and seek local knowledge about currents, obstructions, commercial traffic, and weather patterns. Plan potential bailout points; many of our beaches aren’t easy landings, and even if you get safely ashore, you may have to walk for miles before you reach help.  
  • Check weather and tide predictions. A marine forecast from NOAA will include more accurate wind predictions than your local weatherman. Again seek local knowledge to understand the relation of wind, tide and current in specific locations.
  •  Leave a float plan with someone you trust. Include your intended boating location, and descriptions of your boat, clothing, vehicle, parking location, and intended return time. Instruct your friend, “if you don’t hear from me by X time, call me. If I don’t answer, call 911.” Contact the friend as soon as you’re safely off the water. 
  •  Know your craft. Understand what it can and can’t do. Some kayaks can’t be reentered when they’re swamped, so should never be taken far from shore or into heavy swells. Some sailboats aren’t made for heavy winds. Some powerboats aren’t designed for more than two people. Put a boat to a use for which is was not intended, or play Russian roulette. Same thing, your choice.  
  • Wear your pfd (lifejacket) properly. If it’s lying on the seat next to you, or worn loosely, it’s useless. A pfd is meant to be worn snugly – almost uncomfortably – so it can give buoyancy to your upper body and keep your head out of the water when you fall in. It’s virtually impossible, especially in frigid water, to put on or adjust a pfd after you’re in the water. Wear it and cinch it tight before you need it.
  •  Bring waterproof communication. Keep a vhf radio or cell phone safely waterproofed, usable and reachable if you end up in the water. Practice using your device while it’s in its waterproof case.

It’s rarely possible to speculate whether any of these steps would have prevented a specific tragedy. But to maximize your shot at survival in the event of a mishap on our chilly, beautiful Salish Sea, treat these seven steps as essentials every time you hit the water – regardless of your craft.

  • Here are some additional, sensible steps to consider when appropriate:
  • Don’t wear cotton. Fleece and wool dry much more quickly, tend to wick chilly water away from your body, and provide some insulation even when wet.
  • Bring a thermos of hot beverage, to warm you or a boating buddy if you’re chilled.
  • Understand navigation using charts and a compass, not just your pocket gps.
  • When boating with a group, know your buddies. Know the strengths, weaknesses, and expectations of each person, and talk about what to expect in an emergency. 
  • If you end up in the water, it’s almost always best to stay with your boat rather than try to swim to shore.
  • SUP paddlers should always use an ankle leash.
  • Along with “know your craft”, practice your skills. Take advantage of boating safety resources on line and in person. We have professional instructors right here on the island who teach everything from SUP paddling and kayaking to sailing and power boating, including all the safety information you could ever need. Use them!
  • Don’t assume you’ll be rescued. This isn’t Disneyland or a water park. Your safety is your responsibility.
  • Boat regularly with someone who’s more skilled than you are. There’s always something new to learn, from unfurling a sail to rolling a kayak. Keep getting better by challenging yourself to learn more from your boating buddies.
  • Learn to swim. After a few minutes in our waters, we’re all non-swimmers. Still, a strong, confident swimming stroke provides an extra margin of safety. And with a local pool that provides affordable lessons for both adults and children, there is no excuse for being a non-swimmer here on Whidbey Island.

Honor the memories of our neighbors and friends who have died in our waters by not becoming a victim yourself. Know and respect the risks. Play by Nature’s rules, and teach your loved ones to do the same. You and your family will come home with smiles on your faces and build a lifetime of good memories on the water. 

*             *             *             *

If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. For graphic detail on the effects of cold water, take a few minutes to look at some shocking videos at Cold Water Boot Camp.

Here on Whidbey Island, learn to swim at Oak Harbor Pool, where you can also raise your kayaking awareness with their in-house certified paddling instructor; learn safe SUP paddling technique from Jeff Vallejo at Harbor SUP; and learn the skills you need for safe powerboating and sailing from Deception Pass Sail and Power Squadron.

Beyond our local waters, internationally recognized safety training resources are available at US Power Squadrons, American Canoe Association, US Sailing, and British Canoe Union.

Monday, April 4, 2011

This paddling race is FREE! No kidding.

If your competition budget is squeezed, this is the race for you. As George Bailey once said… “huh? That’s my trick ear. Sounded like you said ‘no charge’.”

That's right George, with many thanks to the Olympic Peninsula Paddling club, the 6th Annual Coho Dodge and Dash is set for Sunday morning, April 17th, at 9am at Hollywood Beach in Port Angeles, over a 3.6 nautical mile course starting and finishing in front of the Red Lion Hotel. It's all part of the 11th Annual Port Angeles Kayak Symposium. The race is free, but please be there before 8:30am to sign in. No preregistration needed, just sign up when you get there and get going!

Competition is in 8 categories, with prizes provided by OPP and Olympic Raft & Kayak.

Since the race is part of the Port Angeles Kayak Symposium on the same weekend, ask for the Symposium discount when you call (360) 452-9215 for a room at the Symposim Host Hotel Port Angeles Red Lion. Rooms include the Roaring Start Breakfast Buffet! ...then take a quick walk to the beach and roar down the race course.

Learn to paddle the fast lane with Don Kiesling!

If you come out on Saturday for the Symposium, don’t miss preparing for the race in Don Kiesling’s “Racing Skills for the Everyday Paddler”, clinics #360 and #385, at the Symposium registration page .

Let's race! See you out there!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guides needed for 2011 season

Friend of Ruby Creek Ed Young at Whidbey Island Kayaking Company sent this yesterday…

Whidbey Island Kayaking Company is looking for qualified guides for our 2011 season. Although not required, we like to hire local people who have knowledge of Whidbey Island's natural history as well as local lore. A candidate should be friendly and outgoing, have excellent kayaking skills and knowledge of local conditions. To see a complete list of requirements go to

Friday, December 10, 2010

Race For Your Life Standings

“You put her in WHAT boat class?”

Congrats to all the Deception Pass Dash racers who earned points in the 2010-11 Race For Your Life Series!

Recap: boat class winners receive points for the number of racers in their class, plus a two-point bonus, to a max of 12 points.

2nd place gets the number of racers in the class, minus 1… 3rd place, minus 2, etc.

All finishers get at least one point.

The next event in the Race For Your Life Series is the New Years Challenge, January 8th in Seattle. Register now!

Current RFYL standings after the Dash:


Sherri Cassuto 12

Susan Conrad 9

Terri Bedford 8

Kimberly Allen 7

Trista Bilmer 7

Heather Nelson 6

Maureen Peterson 6

Debbie Arthur 5

Ayu Othman 5

Suzy Cornell 4

Shawna Franklin 4

Barbara Gronseth 4

Kim Andersson 3

Nadja Baker Zimmerman 3

Cheryl Batty 3

Minnie Fontenelle 3

Vanessa Haycock 3

Theresa Knakal 3

Angela Knightley 3

Tracy Landboe 3

Pam Powell 3

Jodi Wright 3

Traci Cole 2

Alison Graham 2

Aubrey Rosenthal 2

Marianne Banks 1

Julie Beck 1

Cate Burnett 1

Setsuko Cox 1

Megan Kelly 1

Deborah Orth 1

Jennifer Peloquin 1

Sarah Roberts 1

Holly Rutledge 1

Robin Yakhour 1


Karl Andersson 12

Troy Husband 12

Gabriel Newton 12

Alan Lipp 11

Beau Whitehead 11

Brandon Nelson 9

Timothy Niemeir 9

Douglas Peele 9

Chuck Curry 8

Drew Dixon 8

Joe Ferguson 8

Jeff Hegedus 8

Jeff Underwood 8

Timothy Burke 7

Larry Bussinger 7

Greg Gilbert 7

Wayne Horodowich 7

Ken Kroeger 7

Brian Page 7

Patrick Aio 6

Brian Boatman 6

Paul Clement 6

Eric Gerstl 6

George Gronseth 6

Warren Williamson 6

Ernie Wong 6

Morris Arthur 5

Thomas Hanny 5

Vance Hashimoto 5

Jiri Richter 5

Michael Riordan 5

Scott Vesey 5

Darrell Bednark 4

Andy Bridge 4

Tom Cartmill 4

Reivers Dustin 4

Blake Hanley 4

Jasen Kaya 4

Robb Nichols 4

Don Rice 4

Michael Woods 4

Brian Arndt 3

Kevin R Bowman 3

Windsor Cheney 3

James Clapp 3

James Doherty 3

Mike Gregory 3

Michael Hammer 3

Matt Hayes 3

John Holtman 3

Andrew Jaquiss 3

Nick Kappas 3

Jeffrey Knakal 3

Michael Lee 3

Robert Meenk 3

Thom Prichard 3

Aaron Rinn 3

Glenn Rogers 3

Peter Wells 3

Mathew Wendell 3

Jim Zimmerman 3

Greg Bawden 2

Geoff Briggs 2

Gary Cassulis 2

Tracy Clapp 2

Michael Cline 2

Robert Freelove 2

Jeff Gassen 2

Sean Gibson 2

Lance Kahn 2

Troy Nishikawa 2

Seth Albanese 1

Harry Allen 1

Gerardo Andaluz 1

John Anderson 1

Dan Baharav 1

Martin Barker 1

Jeff Bedford 1

Thomas Borst 1

Matthew Charles 1

Clement Corbiell 1

David Couvrette 1

Brent Couvrette 1

Carl Darmer 1

David Desertspring 1

Keith Doorenbos 1

Patrick Doyle 1

Andrew Elizaga 1

Peter Englander 1

Ted Eugenis 1

John Fiddler 1

John Flynn 1

Terry Fox 1

Ryan Gander 1

Michael Germani 1

Mark Greengo 1

Ed Hand 1

Fred Inman 1

Joseph Kaftan 1

David Kau 1

Don Kiesling 1

Sherman Krantz 1

John Kuntz 1

Paul LaPointe 1

Rick Lingbloom 1

Eric Long 1

Danniel Longboatshortboat 1

Alan Marshall 1

Ed Matkovick 1

Christopher May 1

Patrick McCarty 1

Perry McGinity 1

Eric Mead 1

Larry Obryant 1

David Ortland 1

Eric Paige 1

Mark Peele 1

Mark Peloquin 1

Dean Peterson 1

Bill Porter 1

Scott Prato 1

David Price 1

Henry Romer 1

Greg Routt 1

James Schultz 1

Rembrandt Smith 1

Chris Smith 1

Jerry Sowder 1

Sam Stroich 1

David Thompson 1

Matt Treat 1

Jesse Varsi 1

Marc Whitlock 1

David Willett 1

Ron Wright 1

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Warmup victory... with a stick!

Congrats to Wayne Horodowich, winner of the 6-mile race at Kayak Academy’s Greenland Week festivities on Lake Sammamish, November 6th. Here he smiles for the camera with his stick paddle and blue ribbon… and he’s thinking how much faster he’ll go at the Dash with that awesome wing paddle.

Go Wayne! See you next month!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Deception Pass Dash is coming!

Just a few weeks til the 5th Annual Deception Pass Dash, on Saturday the 4th of December. Last year's start (above) saw nearly 200 entries, and this year’s event looks awesome too with lots of great PR going out to the outrigger and SUP communities.

Fellow adventurer Steve Weilman just posted a couple of vids on his blog with highlights from the 2007 and 2008 races. Take a gander over there, stay tuned for more info, and sign up before November 15th to get the early bird price of $45 for race entry, tee shirt and a hot meal. If you'd rather stand watch than race, join the safety kayak crew. 2007's brave and talented rescue team is shown above. Contact Blair Corson to join the crew, or 425-883-9039. And we can always use a hand with check-in, timing, and results, so if you want to help out on land, contact Bill at or 206-940-6269.