by Chuck Royster
Pow! goes the starter's pistol. Instantly, the drummers perched on the bows of the five "dragon boats" start pounding furiously, the sound echoing from the marble walls of the Kennedy Center on the nearby bank of the Potomac River. From the prow of each 45-foot canoe, each with 20 paddlers digging to the rhythm of its drum, a snarling dragon glares downriver, as if it can see the red flag marking the finish line 500 meters away. Welcome to the annual Washington, D.C. Dragon Boat Festival.
Legend holds that dragon boat festivals originated in China more than 2,000 years ago as a celebration of the life of Chu Yuan (340-278 b.c.), a political leader and poet who drowned himself in despair after he lost the trust of his king, his home state fell into the hands of inept officials, and an enemy invaded. The people raced out in their fishing boats to find him, beating drums and throwing out rice dumplings to lure away fish and dragons lest they devour his body.
The tradition has evolved into festivals and races around the world, with the fourth such event in this area drawing more than 5,000 spectators to Washington Harbour last year and another planned for this year. The festival retains its Chinese cultural roots with a memorable weekend of food, racing and frolic on Georgetown's historic waterfront--and spectators can enjoy all the events surrounding the races for free.
For the paddlers, though, it's clearly become a serious competitive sport, and I decide to look into it. I find that while many of the teams are sponsored by local or even large international businesses, the bulk of the competitors come from locally based groups like the National Capital Area Women's Paddling Association (NCAWPA, pronounced na-ca-wa-pa). NCAWPA opened its membership to men in 1998 and now provides the training for competitors in the D.C. dragon boat festival. I take up the offer of Patt Meyer, NCAWPA president and dragon boat coach, to let me take part in a practice. She tells me to meet her at 7:30 on Saturday morning under the 11th Street Bridge on the western bank of the Anacostia River. "Bring a towel, two pairs of shoes and a change of clothes," she adds. "And you should expect to get wet."
I go there with some trepidation, because as a native Washingtonian I remember it as a place where you could see the glow of trash-can fires warming vagrants through the night when you drove across the bridge. It was one of those places that my parents told me to stay away from, and this morning is dark, cloudy, rainy and cold. But braced with a hot cup of coffee and wrapped in jeans, sweatshirt and a waterproof jacket, I turn down the narrow, single-lane blacktop leading to the back of a boathouse and dock along the bank of the Anacostia above where it flows into the Potomac.
To my great surprise, the place is all but humming with activity. It's only 7:30 and yet there are more than 100 cars--with license plates from Washington, Maryland, Virginia and even West Virginia--parked in the unpaved, potholed parking lots surrounding the facility. People are off-loading paddle boats of all types from trailers as others arrive in vans and SUVs in groups of threes, fours and fives. There are people of all ages, races and walks of life: students, baby boomers and jockish seniors. They stream along the dirt path leading to a boathouse and dock. I learn dragon boat racing is only one of the activities of more than 500 dedicated paddlers in the metropolitan area who use this new Anacostia boathouse--operated by volunteers with support from the D.C. government.
Inside the clean, well-lit facility are dozens of boats neatly stacked on wooden racks--among them both large (45-foot) and small (17-foot) dragon boats. These have evolved from wooden vessels with carved prows to sleek craft molded of glass-reinforced polyester. Racing them, I'm told, has become, the fastest-growing water sport in the world--with more than six million participants in nearly 60 countries.
Today we will be using the 17-foot dragon boat with a crew of eight NCAWPA members who compete as the D.C. Dragons. As steersman and coach, Patt Meyer is in charge of the boat, its occupants and all the elements of practice and competition. A retired Navy chief petty officer who now works as a legal assistant at a prominent Washington law firm, she has a quick smile and athletic build that belie her age. She tells me she is the "grandmother of four, and the recently adopted grandmother of another family of six" and fills me in about other members of the crew.
Second in command is David Winter, the "stroke," who will sit on the foremost thwart on the starboard side. Winter, a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health, helped bring the sport to Washington. His wife Pham, a scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton, is also a member of the crew. Also on the team are three members of the Prunier family--Tom, a civilian procurement officer at Naval Sea Systems Command, his wife Vivian, a scientist with the federal government, and their son Jimmy, a student at the University of Mary Washington. Others in the crew include Kathy Wright, a Booz Allen project manager; Carol Herrera, a State Department project officer for citizen exchanges; Diane Levy, a researcher and author with the Urban Institute; and Leo Leung, a former University of Toronto water polo player who now works as a telecommunications engineer in the area.
At the dock, Meyer gives me a quick briefing on paddling safety and equips me with a paddle and the mandatory PFD. She stands in the stern where she can see everyone. As the new recruit, I sit alone on the thwart directly in front of her. The other members of the crew sit two-by-two on the thwarts ahead of us. There's no drummer aboard for this practice. As second in command, the "stroke," David Winter, controls the pace. Racing or practicing, all of the paddlers watch the stroke to stay in sync and form.
For maximum power, Winter explains, the paddlers must raise the paddle perpendicular to the surface of the water, then lean forward, twist at the waist and dig the paddle deep into the river with each stroke. "When it's done right, a good [dragon boat] team can pull a water-skier," Winter says. "At racing speeds of nearly fifteen knots, the bow of the boat will always be out of the water."
We push away from the dock and begin paddling downriver at a leisurely pace. Almost effortlessly, the well practiced team simultaneously digs its paddles into the green waters of the Anacostia, with each stroke creating a deep wake and a surge of forward motion. Our objective, Meyer says, is to position the boat just south of the center pillar of the South Capitol Street bridge, and then make a warm-up run north about 1,000 meters--to a point just below the B&O rail bridge, where starting markers for both the 250- and 500-meter practice courses are set up.
Meyer explains the sequence of strokes and paddle positions dragon boat racers use. They begin with five long, deep "power" strokes to overcome inertia and get the boat going. These are followed by 15 "arms over" strokes, counted out in unison by the crew and performed at an ever-increasing tempo. On each stroke, crew members dig their paddles deep into the water to the point where their knuckles (which should be placed just above the blade of the paddle) touch the water. Once at "race pace," Meyer says, the paddlers twist their bodies almost 90 degrees with each stroke. They yell "One!" on the first of each group of 10 strokes to coordinate their pace.
It is at this point that sweet-talking, grandmotherly Patt Meyer disappears, and Chief Petty Officer Meyer takes charge. When the boat is positioned at the starting line, her tone changes and she barks orders to the crew with a military voice that would make an old gunnery sergeant sit up straighter.
"Set!" she barks, and all paddlers sit bolt upright with paddles cradled in their laps and extended over the gunwales above the water. "Attention!" comes the second command, and the paddlers twist their bodies while extending their inboard arms to hold the top of the paddles perpendicular to the water.
"Go!" Meyer commands, tripping her stopwatch to time the run. This is followed by "One! Two! Three! Four! Five! . . ." and the boat leaps into a new gear. The count goes to 15, and I'm struggling to keep up with the deep, powerful strokes of the practiced crew. The boat is really moving now, creating a wake that fans out from our stern to each side of the river.
At this point, the speed, paddling rate and power control pass to the stroke. Winter's smooth, deep strokes immediately become the model for the crew, who all dig their paddles into the river up to their knuckles and push against the water to propel the boat ever faster.
About halfway to the 250-meter marker, Meyer bellows "Power ten! One, two, three, four . . ." and with each count, the crew turns, twists and digs the paddles in harder, and the boat gains still more speed. We're screaming downriver (14 knots is fast when you're this close to the water) and water from the tips of the paddles sprays over the heads of the crew, wetting everyone's back and shorts. Meyer's 10 count is timed exactly to ensure that its completion occurs when the bow of the boat crosses the 250-meter marker. I am amazed.
"Let it run!" comes the next command, and paddlers assume their initial "set" positions with paddles across their laps. The dragon boat continues to glide with its own inertia for another 100 meters or so as the crew relaxes, and I gasp to catch my breath.
We repeat this sequence for another two hours, with the timing improving on each successive run. By 10 a.m., I am thoroughly exhausted and, even on this chilly morning, dripping with perspiration. But Winter and the rest of the crew look as if they have taken a mere walk in the park and appear ready to do it all over again.
One of the unpredictable elements that make dragon boat racing so much fun is that the crews vary in makeup, style, intensity and purpose. There are, for example, very dedicated and serious teams--such as the women competing as Breast Cancer Survivors. In the words of Robert Malson, chairman of the festival and the Washington, D.C. Dragon Boat Association, they "represent the epitome of focus, dedication and professionalism and the highest elements of class and culture" in the sport. I learn that a Canadian sports-medicine physician started the first dragon boat team of breast cancer survivors a decade ago with a government grant to test his theory that participating in the sport would aid their recovery. The tests proved him right. Dragon boating involves no impact and uses core muscles rather than arm muscles. The twisting motion builds back muscles while strengthening obliques, abdominals and lats.
Arguably somewhat less reserved are the gentlemen of the West Potomac Rugby Football Club, whose official meeting place is a Capitol Hill bar. They entered the Washington races a few years ago on a lark and, to their surprise, won several races and the opportunity to compete in the 2003 Formosa Dragon Boat Festival if they were willing to pay the 9,000-mile airfare. Winners of that tournament earn the title "Grand Masters," but the West Potomac Rugby Club didn't. It turned out the Taiwanese boats were smaller than those the beefy ruggers were used to and they found either (a) their boats would swamp or (b) they had to reduce their crews by two paddlers, something of a handicap. "In their five men's races, West Potomac spent as much time under water as on it," Rugby Magazine reported.
Both sexes and all ages can compete in dragon boats, David Winter tells me, adding that paddling is an excellent cardiovascular workout and a great middle-aged sport. Many of the competitors in the D.C. festival typically are teams of students from Chinese-language schools from around Washington and beyond. NCAWPA provides the boats as well as training for entry fees ranging from $700 to $900 per team, depending on category. Categories are Youth, from 12 to 18; Premier, from 18 to 40; Seniors, from 40 to 50, and Masters, from 50 on up. There are classes for women, mixed (with a minimum of eight women) and open.
Even if you're not ready for the races, NCAWPA wants you anyway. The organization (www.ncawpa.org/db.home.html) is actively looking for new recruits, from experienced athletes wanting to try a new sport to nonathletes who just want to get out and enjoy Washington's natural resources. "Dragon boating is such a great outreach program for introducing people to the local rivers because we can put 20 novices in a single boat," Winter says, and the canoes are more durable and stable than rowing shells. The organization is expanding its outreach after winning a community-service award last year with a program that put more than 1,800 women, men and youths out onto the Anacostia and Potomac rivers for more than 4,000 hours of paddling last year.
That sounds like a lot of paddling. For that matter, two hours was a lot. Maybe I'll stick to powerboating--even though I'll have to crank my engines up to about 2100 rpm to get to nearly 15 knots.
Chuck Royster lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and has been boating on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. He is the CEO of Systems Integration Group, Inc., a computer services firm in Lanham, Md., and keeps his Doral 360 at Columbia Island Marina in Washington, D.C.