Recently, I was honored to participate in my very first Dragon Boat racing festival.
I did a little research about Dragon Boating online, and had confidence in my abilities as an outrigger athlete, but I was excited to learn and try something new.
I arrived at the beautiful Legg Lake in Los Angeles early, eager to take my first in-person peek at a dragon boat. The grassy hills and shady trees were a pleasant change of scenery from sandy beaches, and the placid serenity of the still lake was enchanting. The tents were easy to spot, and soon I came upon eight dragon boats docked patiently near the various team tents. The actual shape of them was much wider than I am used to, but the ornamental dragon head, tail, and drum was exciting. I eyed the steersman’s long oar with a baffled humility. This was indeed going to be very new.
I was grateful to be placed on a team that had some dragon boat veterans who were full of good tips. They pointed out the course, which to my eyes seemed extremely short – only 250 meters in total, usually completed in around one minute. I am used to distances between 10 and 30 miles, and am generally an endurance creature at heart – sprinting is not one of my strengths. My heart fluttered with anxious excitement realizing that any mistakes at all could potentially cost you the entire race. I also learned that just like any everything else, each heat has a beginning, middle, and a sprint to the finish, and a great deal of strategy can go into deciding how your team wants to approach the match.
The community was energetic, friendly, relaxed and welcoming. I was met with smiles everywhere around the park, and though I was puzzled by the sprint heat format of the schedule it quickly made sense. This was mostly credited to how smoothly the event was being conducted, with 8 boats continually cycling racers out for heats consisting of 4 boats at a time.
The opening ceremony consisted of many introductions and thanks, as well as a traditional dance, call and repeat war chants and a drumming contest. I was jazzed to try this!
I never would have guessed, but I needed a lesson simply on how to enter and exit the craft. The dragon boats are a bit tippy compared to what I’m used to, and it was a precarious experience. They were also close quarters, since you have to share your bench with another person, and there is no generous clearance to the front or to the back of you. The team huddles together in a tight bunch, causing to sometimes physically hit one another when your timing is off. Even once you are seated, the boat has a wild and squirrely feel to it I was not used to. Any sudden shift in weight caused the entire thing to rock, and I was not sure where to place my feet on the bottom.
I have competed in numerous team sports in my life – from basketball to outrigger to PC gaming – but never before has the word “TEAMWORK” meant so much in me in a raw, tangible way. You win or lose, live or die as one team in a Dragon Boat. There are leaders, but there are no heroes. Everyone contributes, or no one succeeds. You must be united, you must have complete trust, and you cannot afford to hold back - ever. You are united with the paddler who is at your shoulder. You are one with the paddler directly in front of you, mapping out the path before you. You must follow, you must lead, keep complete balance, focus and trust. A paddler can only focus on their own duty – you have to trust that the sweep will do their job. The stroker will do their job. The drummer will do their job. This is trust.
Though many things were different, many things were familiar to me. I was grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths in and out to calm the start-line jitters. I had to remember to be disciplined and focus on listening and obeying commands, keeping boat awareness. The stroke was similar to what I knew: timing, rhythm, power, reach forward and drop the shoulder. Again. Again. Again! More! NOW! Not in a hurry, but not a single muscle can relax. I have never had to stay on one side for so long – the arm tasked with the pull gets no rest or reprieve. My muscles burned and my heart was ready to burst from my chest. I had to remember to breathe, but there was no time! It was already over, and the euphoria was bursting through my face.
“What just happened? I want more!” From the shore, I could see friends and family jumping up and down with excitement. I felt like a puppy, and found myself wishing I had a tail to wag happily behind me, as if asking “Was that good? Did I do okay?”
The cheers and smiled told me everything I needed to know. One heartbeat. One pulse. One team. One mission accomplished together.
“THE DRAGON WILL ONLY ANSWER WHEN ALL ARE ONE.”
This phrase gives my spine tingles, because I will now remember this day as “that time we summoned a dragon.”
Team Writer Megs Phillips - Raised a Cali beach bum, playing in the sand and surf before she could talk, Megs has enjoyed white water rafting, dappled with OC1's, SUPs, and kayaks, and is a deep lover of all things ocean, river, rapids, and lake related. In 2010 she discovered outrigger canoeing and was instantly hooked; paddling with Ka Nai'a Outrigger in Santa Barbara. Her contributions to Cali Paddler are much appreciated!
Should you have an idea or topic for her, feel free to send it our way and we will pass it along! In addition to following her here at Cali Paddler, we encourage you to visit her personal blog: Paddler Problems, where you can enjoy more of her fun writings and comics.