DRAGON: EAT, SLEEP, PADDLE -- FROM ANCIENT TRADITION TO INTERNATIONAL SPORT
BY ALEX MULLANEY
Stroking in unison keeps the team together. City College passes UC Los Angeles at the College Dragon Boat Event 2006 at Lake Merced.
MELISSA MA / GUARDSMAN
In the southwest corner of San Francisco lies Lake Merced. One of the city’s prized natural and recreational resources, skaters, bikers and runners frequent the 4.4-mile circuit that encompasses it, fishermen go for the stocked trout, bass and catfish and water sports enthusiasts find peace on the lake’s calm waters.
Early on a Saturday in November, four 45-foot, canoe-like boats adorned with bright-colored scales lunge forward to the sound of beating drums and 80 oars hitting water.
City College's dragon boat team is behind UC Berkeley and Sueng Feng Loong, but ahead of UC Los Angeles in the 500-meter race.
Coach Bryan ____ stands at the stern on a long oar, guiding the boat while coach Jadene ____ crouches at the bow beating the drum and instructing the twenty-person crew.
"One—Two—Three," the crew calls out, burying their oars in unison with the drum’s Dum—Dum—Dum. In dragon boat racing, coordination is crucial. The team with the most precession, the best rhythm, wins.
City College pulls past UCLA, and goes head-to-head with Sueng Feng Loong.
With 100 meters left, now is the kick—the sprint to the finish line. The crew strains to put sheer power into every stroke as the drum's tempo quickens.
Simultaneously, City College and SFL cross the finish line. Crews cheer and let their paddles fall into resting position to rest their arms.
SFL won by half a second.
SFL is City College's friendly rival and main competitor of the 12 teams at the College Dragon Boat Event 2006 on Nov. 11.
“We’re racing a lot of SoCal teams we don't usually see,” captain Jane Ho says, “For bragging rights, this is it.”
“But, win or lose, we emphasize having fun," adds Kelly Au, captain and team manager.
Au and Ho, along with high school friends, founded the City College Dragon Boat Club in the spring of 2004. The team began with a crew of four, but reached its 40-member count by recruiting through word of mouth—going to classrooms and passing out fliers.
"I recruited friends," Au says. "When we first started, we lost our race. We beat Stanford, though—Stanford alumni ... Hey, we weren't dead last."
The team competes in all the major races in California, including a three-day event in South Long Beach this summer.
"Our woman team did really good,” Au says. “They’re one of the stronger ones around. We feed them steroids and testosterone."
The team practices Saturday mornings at Lake Merced. Everything needed to practice—boats, paddles and life jackets—is there, provided by the California Dragon Boat Association. Club members pay membership and docking fees and City College helps pay competing costs. The club isn't limited to City College students. Members come from San Francisco State University, University of California at Berkeley and University of California at Davis.
The learning curve for dragon boat racing is low. It takes six months to make a good crewmember, but after one practice, anyone will be ready to compete.
"Racing isn't that hard to do," says Chris Lee, who's been with the team since the beginning. "It's all about muscle memory, endurance and stamina. You want to work out, so you can help compete."
Dragon boat racing began as a Chinese tradition 2000 years ago and in the last 20 years has transformed into an international sport.
Popular throughout Asia, The Hong Kong Tourism Bureau introduced it to North America with a demonstration at the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, 100 dragon boat races are held in the United States every year, while the Bay Area has 70 teams and hosts a dozen competitions year.
Stroking in unison is the only way to make two-to-three-ton dragon boat move with any speed. Boats can exceed 10 miles an hour if timing is perfect. This required unity builds camaraderie, and may explain why dragon boat racing has become a worldwide sport under consideration for the Olympic Games.
"Our dragon boat team's an easy fraternity," Au says. "It's friends getting together. It's a get away."
It's Saturday morning and the dragon boats are still moored 35 yards out. The rowboat used for ferrying them has gone missing. Practice can't begin until the boats are docked, so teammates Ben, Michael and Victor jump in to retrieve them.
"Help!" Michael shouts, flailing his arms in desperation. Halfway between the dragon boats and the dock, his muscles have cramped in the 45-degree water. He cannot swim any longer.
Nearby practicing rolls, kayak enthusiast Kathleen Wesner hears Michael's call and paddles to him. He grabs the tail of her kayak and they slowly move toward the dock.
"Help!" is shouted again. Now, Victor has cramped from the cold. Ben, the strongest swimmer, goes to him.
At the dock, teammate Chris dives in to help his friends, but the cold forces him to turn back. Victor and Ben will have to wait for Kathleen.
But Victor can't wait. He takes in water and loses consciousness. Ben holds him by the collar of his t-shirt and screams for assistance. He's cramping, too.
After depositing Michael to safety, Kathleen goes to the others. Victor is out, so Ben sandwiches him between himself and the kayak. Kathleen makes a hundred abrupt strokes just to go a few feet. Victor's eyes are closed and his head is rolling back and forth, but as he nears the dock, he coughs, expelling water. His eyes open, deliriously, for a second. He's pulled onto the dock. He coughs more, but remains unconscious.
Ben pulls himself onto the dock. Head down, shivering on all fours, he yells, "That scared the shit out of me."
Teammates arrives with blankets and towels to wrap up the young men. Kneeling beside Victor, gripping his wrist, Chris says he has an irregular pulse. Sirens ring in the distance.
Paramedics go to the dock and take Victor away on a stretcher. A paramedic tells the team, "He's going to be all right."
Standing beside her kayak, Kathleen removes her gear. "It felt like forever taking those two," she says. "I don't know if I've saved anyone's life before."
Captain Au calls everyone together. Practice is canceled. Coach Bryan reminds them of the importance of life jackets. Ben, wrapped up in a blanket, shivers while a teammate consoles him. The team is shaken and worried about Victor.
Before they depart, Jane calls for a group hug.
Bunched together, they say in unison, "1—2—3—Victor!"
For more information, visit www.ccsfdragonboat.com