Dragon Boats for Everyone

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a dragon boat regatta in Eastern Canada. I remember thinking, “Hey, who are all these people and where’d they all come from? And where are the sails, engines or, for that matter, even oars for goodness sake? Then I returned to my limited world of sail and power and forgot about it until my wonderful sister-in-law Emily signed up a few months ago.

Emily has multiple sclerosis, and walking only a few steps is a slow, exhausting and frustrating endeavor. To hear her excited about a watersport  caught my attention and a realization hit me like a splash of salt water. Of course! That’d WORK!

Dragon boating is more than alive and well, it’s thriving and growing. According to Washington Dragonboat Association’s Linda Ripley, it’s the world’s fastest growing team sport these days. And it should be. It gets people on the water cheaply, keeps them fit, just about anybody do it and it’s a highly social activity with everything from casual paddlets to full on serious competition. If you think about it, maybe everybody should get on a dragon boat team. OK, maybe not, but it does look like a great way of getting on the water.


What’s a Dragon Boat?


Dragonboats are 42’ long, beamy enough to sit two abreast  and range from the ornate to the seriously competitive. (there are some bigger ceremonial dragon boats) Dragonboating originated in China. Supposedly it stemmed from a legend about a community saving a drowned folk hero named Qu Yuan. But there’s evidence dragon boats predated the supposed time of this legend. One thing is certain, dragon boats have been racing and in ceremony for more than 2,500 years. Yes, folk, since the ancient Greeks were doing all that hard thinking.

A dragon boat has a crew of 20 paddlers facing forward, one sweep (or steersman) and, on race day, a drummer at the bow facing aft. It’s actually quite a crowded and raucous place, especially during races.

Offshore power boat fans might think of the drummer as the throttle man. His cadence is more than a metronome for the team. He or she must have a sense of when power is needed (faster cadence) and when’s a good time to conserve  power in light of conditions and how the race is shaping up.  And, by the way, the drummer better have some good balance perched on the bow.

The sweep is similar to an offshore powerboat’s driver or sailboat’s helmsman. The big old sweep oar at the back of the boat is for keeping the boats on course and in the middle of a lane, and the sweep himself has to keep the dragon boat from running into anything. That said, with a good team the sweep will be able to keep all but a tiny sliver of the sweep oar out of the water to reduce drag. And in case some ambitious sweep figures on sneaking over in the lane to catch a ride on another boat’s bow wave, well, that’s illegal!

The paddlers are the engine of the beast, and it’s all about getting in sync. Paddlers are most effective when they’re all digging in at the same time, and the power has to be balanced port to starboard so the sweep doesn’t have much to do. As in most sports, success is largely a byproduct of practice. The mechanics of paddling are pretty simple, the key being to use your core torso muscles as effectively as possible and not depend on arm strength alone.

At the end of a two to three minute, 500 meter race, the crew of a dragon boat is completely spent and searching for ways to get as much oxygen back into their lungs as quickly as possible.

One other thing about dragon boats, they look cool. The ceremonial origins come out the graphics and ornate dragonheads that appear on race days. The teams sometimes come up with brightly colored and flashy uniforms that would put most sports to shame.



“Let Her Run!”


There’s one hard and fast rule on the MS Wildplay Warriors Dragonboat team. If you say “sorry” when you splash someone, you have to buy everyone (all 20 members) beers afterward. Splashing, as you can imagine, is not uncommon. Emily is one of the most congenial and polite people, you’ll ever likely to meet. It would be unthinkable for her not to apologize. Her solution?

“I’m not sorry I splashed you.” Everyone understands she just apologized, but nobody gets the beer.

Camaraderie is probably the single most essential element in Dragonboating. Every team has its character, and its characters. Verbal ping-pong is a part of nearly every crew, sometimes to the consternation of coaches trying to get a point across or maybe to get just a little bit of focus.

The giggles and laughs might hold a little bit more value for the MS Wildpay Warriors. The MS stands for Multiple Sclerosis, one of the world’s most relentless and least understood diseases. And while there are treatments and there is always hope, laughs aren’t always easy to come by and a cure is nowhere in sight.

And, in one of those “whooda thunk” ways, Dragonboating can be very well suited for many of those suffering from MS. Those who have limited use of their lower body, like Emily, can certainly paddle once they’re situated in the boat. There are challenges, of course. A small plastic chair is mounted for Emily to help support her where her core muscles have weakened. Other members have special foot braces to help them stay in a good paddling posture.

Emily is helped into and out of her seat by other paddlers. Once in place she’s expected to pull her own weight like everyone else. And I know firsthand she’ll more than keep up in the verbal ping-pong.

But here’s the really great news. The previous occupant of Emily’s chair is now paddling without a special chair. Yes, in the midst of a disease that can have a seemingly relentless downward trajectory, Jenni Gress went from needing a special chair to not needing one. Dragon boating can’t cure MS, but it can strengthen muscles and give those with MS a lot of fun and a common purpose where the disease isn’t the thing, the paddling’s the thing.

Not all of MS Wildplay Warriors crew have MS, and crew members have varying degrees of disabilities. But what binds them is the resolve to get people on the water and, at least for a time, leave MS ashore.

There are other special teams including breast cancer survivors, and of course there are age categories for the able bodied as well.

When Coach Roman Matieschyn yells “Let Her Run!” (his team’s favorite phrase of encouragement) the Wildplay Warriors look like everybody else out there, except they may be a little more in sync because they’re trying that much harder.



Dragon Boats in Washington


Dragon boating started migrating to North America in the mid 1970s. In 1999 a visit from a Chinese team to a Tacoma maritime festival ultimately led to the active scene there. There are three teams currently in Tacoma and one in Olympia. The real stronghold on this side of Canada is Portland, where there are approximately 25 teams. In Canada, participation is jaw-dropping, with 125-165 teams showing up for some events.

No doubt one of the reasons for the tremendous growth of the sport is the welcoming attitudes of dragon boat teams and how easy it is for people to get started. “Try Dragon Boating” is a prominent link on the Washington Dragon Boat Association web site. Go there and find out you can come as you are for a practice, no experience or gear required. For free. They’ll loan you a life jacket and paddle for three appearances while you make up your mind if this is something you want to do.             And yacht clubs wonder why they’re losing the hearts and minds battle.

There are big annual dragon boat events in Tacoma, Portland, Victoria and Vancouver, just for starters. And the crowds of spectators, families and support folk create a festive and family friendly scene on shore.

As a fleet of dragon boats makes its way down the track, the event comes alive in so many ways. The drums beat, the crowds are yell, a puff of wind takes the shallow craft off course, the flags are wave and the boat graphics light up the waters with color. It’s sport, spectacle and festival all at the same time.

It’s not a hydro race where the boats are a blur and its not some sailboat race far from land. There are no arcane rules and participation is reward in itself. It’s ordinary people on the water having a blast.

And among those folk are some truly extraordinary people as well, like my sis Emily and the MS Wildplay Warriors.



mswildplaywarriors.com  For a truly inspirational video clip, stop by the Wildplay Warriors’ web sie.



Flotsam and Jetsam.


Wild Eyes is Now Jetsam


For those who haven’t noticed, little Abby Sunderland, aged 16, didn’t manage to become the youngest person to sail around the world. The rig came down on her Open 40 Wild Eyes in the Indian Ocean and she was rescued by a combination of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and a French fishing boat.  Everybody, including Geraldo Rivera, feels obligated to pass judgment either on her or (more often) her father.

Like any tabloid story, this tale is rife with contradictions and unknowns. There were dollar signs involved, certainly in sponsorship and possibly even a reality TV series (Adventures in Sunderland Yep, really). Critics don’t need to exercise much mental brawn to come up with a litany of errors including choice of boat (Open 40), time of year (stormy winter in the southern latitudes) and preparation (apparently not much).

I don’t know Abby or her dad. I’d like to talk to Abby after the hubbub dies down, but maybe that will never happen. Regardless of how skilled she is or isn’t right now, she’s got a lot of guts and tenacity and if she wants to after something in the future with humility, I’ll bet she accomplishes a great deal.

I don’t really care whether she was incompetent or her dad was using her for his own grandeur and riches.  I don’t even care about their born-again, God’s-in-charge-of-everything stance, though I hope they thank the fishermen as much as the fisherman. None of that is my business.

My issue with this is the harm it does the perception of sailing. There are those that will take away from this that sailing is a daredevil, life-endangering sport that should be avoided unless you have a death wish. There are others watching the media frenzy who will come away with the impression that the sport is populated with kooks. Sponsors will have yet another reason to just avoid sailing altogether. And sailors themselves are completely dismayed to be lumped in with this circus.

Sailing offshore, really sailing offshore, has only some tertiary connection to getting from point A to point B or records. Real sailing is about seamanship. Seamanship is about planning and preparing to do something completely and to the best of one’s ability. It’s about everything from getting the right charts and having enough AA batteries aboard to choosing the right track to avoid problem weather and knowing how to set a sea anchor. And the key ingredients with all this are humility and a desire to learn. Seamanship requires a huge dose of each. There was nothing about Abby Sunderland’s ill-fated voyage that demonstrated humility or a sense of what offshore sailing is really about, but there was a lot of talk about getting from A to B. Yet, hers is the voyage people hear about.

I hope to have a more inspiring, less controversial and far more accessible inspirational passage to report about next month.




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