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.