Aquatic Rhythm

The Ithaca Dragon Boat Club is in boat number-three in the final 100 meters of a 500-meter race. Four to five boats compete in races that are full-out sprints. The distance of races ranges from 200 to 2,000 meters in length.

It was one of those stand-in-the-shade-and-sweat kind of days in mid-July 2013, a simmering afternoon – temperature and humidity tied at 95, both inching toward a perfect score of 100. Taking a walk along the shady bank of Cayuga Inlet looked inviting, but after two minutes it felt like ambling around on a damp sponge cooking in a microwave; even the mosquitoes were overwhelmed with the heat.

I was about to head for my car and air conditioning when I heard a faint, rhythmic thumping sound echoing across the water. I turned back toward the inlet and searched for the sound’s origin as the thudding and whooshing got louder, closer and clearer – a deep-pitched tone followed by a splash and burble of water moving to a drum beat.

I expected to see some 18th century, oar-driven galleon coming toward me powered by Cornell rowers celebrating an obscure, pirate holiday. Instead, I saw a grinning dragon head attached to the front of a long, shallow boat with scales painted along its side. The craft was muscled by brawny paddlers in matching, brightly colored shirts. A drummer perched on a platform directly behind the dragon’s “neck” was beating a large, kettle-shaped drum hugged between his knees. A guy in the stern grasped a tiller and barked commands.

I later learned they were operating a dragon boat.

An ancient sport

Though the sport has enjoyed centuries of popularity on other continents, dragon boat racing is relatively new to the U.S. But this “made in China” competition has caught on quickly. Today, there are dragon boat clubs and racing festivals in every region of the country.

Enthusiasts claim the sport traces back 2,000 years, to a Chinese legend – despite crewmembers sometimes showing up at races in horned helmets looking like confused Vikings – concerning Qu Yuan, a poet and royal minister who committed suicide somewhere around 278 B.C.

Like all things ancient that have survived into the modern era, dragon boat racing has a rich history in which fact and folklore combine. According to a 2009 article in Smithsonian magazine:

“Qu Yuan, an advisor in the court of Chu during the Warring States period of ancient China, was exiled by the emperor for perceived disloyalty. Qu Yuan had proposed a strategic alliance with the state of Qi to fend off the threatening state of Qin, but the emperor didn’t buy it and sent Qu Yuan off to the wilderness. Qu Yuan was right. The next Chu king surrendered [to Qin]. Upon hearing the tragic news, Qu Yuan in 278 B.C. drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province.”

On hearing of Qu Yuan’s suicide, his supporters took to their boats and energetically rowed up and down the river trying to retrieve his body before it was desecrated by fish. Dragon boat racing symbolizes that long ago race to save the remains of a martyr. The dragon motif comes into the picture because of the creature’s power to live in and control the earth’s waters, a good reason to have one on your side during a contest.

Paddlers set the beat

Two months after I first saw the boats on the inlet, I attended a Saturday morning practice of the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club to learn more. My agenda was simple: hang out, chat with people, snap some photos, watch the paddlers pull away from the docks, and then, reward myself with breakfast. I did what I intended, but the enthusiasm of the people on the boat pulled me in. Teamwork, camaraderie, exercise, and the sheer joy of being on the water were sentiments echoed by all the paddlers. Before I could stop myself, I agreed to come back – and paddle.

Context: I am over 60, and my water activities include an occasional kayak paddle on Dryden Lake, a once-in-awhile canoe float on Cayuga Lake, an annual swim (once per summer) in the Atlantic Ocean, and showers; my favorite in this list is showering because I have mastered it. Agreeing to practice with the dragon boaters had been impulsive. I hoped it wouldn’t end disastrous.

In a state that teetered between determination and resignation, I got in my car on the appointed Saturday and drove to Cass Park. It was early October. The morning was cool and bright; the lake calm, its color shifting through shades of blue and gray as high clouds rearranged themselves and the sunlight.

The club members were welcoming and helpful. In short order, I was sized-up and handed a paddle and life vest. Then came a test. Could I get to my assigned seat in the boat without toppling myself or the paddle into the water? I did. It was my second small victory of the morning – the first one was showing up.

Once seated, I got a quick orientation thanks to Ithaca club members Alan Karasin, Robert Chapman and John Mayer, all experienced paddlers happy to mentor newcomers. Where a paddler sits depends on weight, stroke speed and strength. I was one seat away from the steerer. This is not the power section.

The paddle stroke in dragon boating at first feels awkward, almost counterintuitive, and takes practice. You have to lean over the water, stretch far forward with the paddle, and pull the stroke through with every muscle you can bring to the party. This is not your mama’s canoeing maneuver.

Once away from the dock, the steerer puts the paddlers through their paces, alternating between faster and slower rhythms, and having different sections of the boat paddle while others rest. Two minutes can be an eternity when closing in on a rhythm that approximates racing speed.

A boat is 40 feet long; at full strength it carries 20 individuals, 18 paddlers, a drummer in front and a steerer in the rear. To be an able steerer requires understanding wind, waves, temperature variables, strategy, balance dynamics of boats, and a keen sense of your team’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the cheerleader position and task master spot. I was not asked if I’d like to try it. Drummers don’t set the pace, the beat mimics the paddlers’ rhythm. It’s an auditory cue that reinforces the stroke speed underway.

When the practice ended, I was tired and, yes, feeling just the teeniest self-righteous. I had kept up – most of the time. It was great fun and a great work out. Other positives of the morning: no heart attack, no falling in the water, and met interesting people of all shapes, ages (several in my own decade), sizes, colors and backgrounds. Before the practice started, I had asked club member Sean Williams if there was one thing he thought important for me to know. He laughed and said, “We make it a point to come back to the dock with the same number of paddlers we started with.” And so we did.

Where to find dragon boats

To witness serious dragon boat competition, and learn more about Chinese culture, don’t miss the 2014 Finger Lakes International Dragon Boat Festival at Cass Park in Ithaca. This year, it’s on Saturday, July 12. Visit fingerlakesdragonboat.org for more information.

For more info about the Ithaca club, check out ithacadragonboat.org. During the season, from May through mid-October, the club practices three times a week, and sessions begin and end at Cass Park in Ithaca. Paddles, life jackets, interesting people and fun are provided, but bring your own water. As for my own piece of advice, don’t wear jeans – damp denim weighs a ton!


by Jan Bridgeford-Smith