Faster than a speeding dragon
Mel, 15, likes this ancient Chinese sport because of the team camaraderie and it’s unique. WITH PHOTO GALLERY.
I first signed up for dragonboating in the eighth grade when my friend Andrea Tseng, who also founded the club, was the captain. I was looking for a way to exercise, and dragonboating sounded like fun.
At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I dragged myself out of bed to go to practice at Long Beach’s Mother’s Beach. I walked onto the beach, where the murky water smelled of trash and sewage. The boats looked like long canoes, not dragon-like at all. (I later learned that dragon’s heads and tails were only attached to the ends of the boats during festivals and competitions.)
My teammates and I jumped into one of the docked boats and began rowing around the marina. Practice was tough. I had to master a whole new vocabulary: “Hit! Lean out! Feather! Faster recovery!” These commands were shouted by our coach, Kevin Chan, as he trained us to row efficiently with maximum power and to strengthen our endurance. The next day, as every muscle in my body seemed to hurt, especially my back, I was at a crossroads whether to continue or to quit.
But I stuck with it, and the back pain subsided after several practices. I began to fall in love with the sport and feel pride in my team, J.A.W.S. (which stands for Just Add Water).
Spending time with my teammates and winning, or even losing, together is what motivates me to continue every Sunday. With this year’s 99 sign-ups for the club, our team has grown from its humble 30-person roster.
With so many new rowers, we had to consider how the team could practice. A boat can fit about 18 rowers plus a caller and a steersman. The caller, who sits in the front of the boat, beats a drum and calls commands to the rowers, while the steersman stands in the back of the boat and steers the boat in different directions.
At first, with the sudden growth of our team, it was difficult to take multiple boats out to practice. But the problem was solved when some rowers decided to stick with it, while others quit.
Our two-hour practices are not as grueling as you might think. There are a lot of fun parts. It’s so satisfying when the team is dead-on with timing at practice. As we lean forward and paddle, the power of your teammates and the boat pulsing forward is palpable. It’s this feeling that makes the team pull together, feel strong and be competitive. When our timing is off, we call it “caterpillaring” because when the rowers are each off by a fraction of a second, the paddles move in a wave, the way a caterpillar crawls.
One of our three captains, senior Joemari Salvani, always manages to make the team laugh and lift our spirits. Whether it’s singing a song in a make-believe language or swearing in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, Joe always brings enthusiasm and spirit to practices.
When we go out on the water on an early Sunday morning, surrounded by fog and figures in the mist, the atmosphere is surreal. We only have the beat of our caller and the stroke of our pacers to follow in the silent zone. This atmosphere is calming after a stressful week at school.
Once, a seal surfaced a few feet away from us, as if challenging us to a race. My teammates’ faces lit up with delight and our coach, chuckling, allowed us to follow the seal. Our eyes were wide with curiosity staring at the magnificent beast swimming through the water. The seal’s speed and grace amazed us as we slowly paddled toward it. But with a quick flick of its long body, the seal left us in its wake.
It’s about teamwork
Dragonboating is not all about what happens on the water. It also stresses teamwork on land. Before practice, all 20 of us are needed to carry the boat into the water. And after practice when we clean the boat together, everyone has his or her own job. Some get sponges or buckets; others pump water out of the boat, scrub or rinse. The whole team works together and depends on each other just like we do during a race or competition. Everyone works hard, afraid to disappoint the team.
We’re friendly with the competition, something that can’t be found in many other sports. We frequently share tents or canopies at festivals, and sometimes even practice with Holy C.R.A.P. (Crazy Rowing Asian People), a team from Cerritos High School. We’re also friendly rivals with the Dragonauts, a team made up of students from Whitney, Gahr, and Cerritos high schools.
An opposing team member once passed by our tent at a tournament and greeted us with a friendly smile, curious about the “Powered by Tapioca Express” logo on the back of our team shirts. Even though we were about to race each other, we got into a conversation about how to get sponsorships.
I enjoy participating in a unique sport that people are immediately interested in upon hearing about it. They always ask where dragonboating originated. It started in China. I’ve heard that dragonboats were raced to worship the god of water, or the Zodiac sign of the dragon. Another story is that the Chinese held dragonboat races to commemorate the death of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan. Now, the sport is solely for recreation.
Today, after all that rowing, my right arm is actually bigger than my left. I’ve learned how to get up early on Sundays, how to keep from splashing the person in front of me, and how to ask for sponsorships with confidence. It was great to win first place in our division last year, but more importantly, I had a lot of fun.
Click here to check out the California Dragon Boat Association.
Other stories by this author:
A day that made a difference. Mel writes about how rewarding it was to volunteer at an orphanage in Tijuana. (Oct. 2006)