Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa.
The caller beat out a rhythm. “Dig, dig, dig, dig!”, he yelled out as he beat his cadence, exhorting us to get the dragon boat moving. The race was on.
* * *
Last week I wrote of several events at the Portland Rose Festival, and mentioned that one event was Chinese Dragon Boat racing. What I didn’t mention was that back in 1993, I took part in these races.
In those days the dragon boats had only been around for three years. They were a gift from Kaohsiung, our sister city in China, and the idea of racing them was still new. At the time I worked for the local natural gas utility, and when they decided to sponsor a team it sounded like a cool thing to try.
A team takes 23 people; 20 paddlers with 10 on each side of a boat, someone to steer the tiller, a caller, and an adventurous sort to ride the dragons head and grab the flag at the end of the race. I wasn’t the only one to think it was a cool idea, and enough people signed up to form a team. We called ourselves the Gas Hogs (cringe), and had team t-shirts showing a crew of pink hogs (bigger cringe), paddles in hand, crewing a dragon boat.
While the races were in June, we practiced twice a week for several months in advance, both to learn how to do it properly and to get in shape.
* * *
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa. The caller beat out the time, and our paddles dipped in unison.
We’re in mid-race now. Races take about three minutes, and at this stage we’re pacing ourselves – trying to maintain the momentum of the boat without burning ourselves out. It’s surprising how much energy it takes to propel these big boats. Aerobically I’m in the best shape of my life, but is it enough?
* * *
There’s a technique to paddling a dragon boat. You don’t just stick the paddle in any which way and drag it back. The idea is to take full advantage of as much paddle surface as you can and pull with your big muscles. Here are the steps in a paddling stroke, for a paddler on the left side of the boat:
- Hold the paddle next to the blade with your left hand, and the end of the paddle with your right hand.
- Lean forward and extend the paddle above the water in a near vertical position. Your right arm extends straight and over your head and your torso twists to the right.
- Dip the paddle into the water, immersing as much blade as you can.
- Pull the blade by twisting your torso left and leaning backward. Put your back into it and keep the blade vertical.
- As you twist, your left arm comes back and your right arm goes forward.
- At the end of the stroke, lift the paddle, recoil your torso, and get ready for the next stroke. Make sure to get the paddle all the way out of the water on the recoil, or you’ll give the guy in front of you a bath and lose momentum.
- Synchronization is an absolute imperative. Time your strokes by watching the paddler across and ahead of you. Since your arm is over your head you’re looking under your elbow. The caller is controlling the two lead paddlers, everyone else follows the paddler in front of them. A dragon boat crew in action should look like a well-oiled machine.
* * *
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa. The end of the race is nearing. The caller increases the pace. Muscles are burning. Lungs are gasping for breath. Every pull is a hard one; you can feel the boat surge as 20 paddles feed energy into the water. The heart of the dragon pounds with a fierce beat.
The flag man crawls out on top of the dragons head, lying in a prone position between the horns of the dragon, holding on with one hand and reaching out for the flag with the other.
Dig! Dig! Dig!
It’s the last push. We pick up the pace and try to keep synch. We’re exhausted, but so are the crews of our competition. Flags bob in the water atop of buoys, waiting to be grabbed and pulled. We cross the finish line.
* * *
We didn’t win, but we didn’t come in last either. Not bad for a mishmash of office workers, especially as some of the other teams were clearly athletes.
I didn’t look into racing in subsequent years – while the races were fun those Saturday morning practice sessions after a hard week of work were brutal. But no regrets. I never see a dragon boat without remembering back to that season, and to this day, if I’m white water rafting or paddling any sort of boat, that powerful dragon boat stroke still comes back to me.