Racers Come Together at Dragon Boat Festival

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A typical Saturday along the Thea Foss Waterway can be quite peaceful. Families can be spotted out on bike rides while others take a stroll along the water’s edge with their dogs. A boat might peacefully hum past if the weather deems the day warm enough. This past Saturday though, wasn’t typical as the usual peace was disrupted by pounding drums, restless waters, and 38 tents, each serving as base camp for hundreds of eager competitors. On Saturday, May 19, Thea’s Park was overtaken by the Rainier Dragon Boat Festival, hosted by the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association. 

While the sport of dragon boat racing is still gaining traction in the states, it has long been practiced in Chinese culture. The tradition began 2,400 years ago, when a prominent and beloved advisor, Qu Yuan, drowned. His followers raced by boat into the waters to rescue him and paddled to ward off evil forces, though their rescue efforts were unsuccessful. Today, dragon boat racing remembers the life of Qu Yuan, marks the beginning of rice planting season, and celebrates the dragon and its spirit. 

To begin the day, an opening ceremony was held where the origin of dragon boat racing was shared along with the Blessing and Dotting of the Eyes ceremony. The Blessing consisted of a prayer for safety and good competition by Laurie Brown, chief experience officer at CHI Franciscan Health, a sponsor of the festival. The Dotting of the Eyes was performed by representatives from event sponsors the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association, MultiCare, and CHI Franciscan Health. Each representative painted eyes on four dragon heads, which would later be placed at the front of the boats used in the races. 

Following the opening ceremony was a captain’s meeting and then, finally, the main event: the races. Races were divided into community and club teams and were scheduled in heats with three to four boats per heat. Teams from throughout the Northwest were represented from Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Seattle, and even Portland. 

With each race, it was clear why dragon boat racing is considered one of the truest forms of team sports. Each boat consists of 22 people: 20 paddlers, a sweeper, and a caller. The sweeper stands at the back of each boat and is responsible for keeping it on course and preventing collisions. The caller, nicknamed the “heartbeat” of the team, keeps beat on a drum and/or chants to the pace set by the first paddlers. This helps keep all paddlers in rhythm with each other so strokes can be in sync, and therefore, faster and more efficient. 

During the races, callers and their drum beats could be heard from shore, and it was mesmerizing to watch each boat stay in perfect rhythm with each other and speed across the water. It was clear that in order for a team to be successful every member had to stay focused and put forth his or her best effort to stay in sync and paddle hard. The theme of teamwork is evident even outside the boat as Steve Wickline, captain and paddler for Mary Bridge’s team MB Little Dragons, shared that racing and working towards a common goal brings the team together both in the boat and in the office. 

One of the best aspects of the Rainier Dragon Boat Festival was how welcoming and inclusive it was towards paddlers of all skill levels. Some participants had been competing for years, while for others it was their first race ever. Kenley Borgerson, a senior at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland and caller for her team, enjoys how despite the differences her and her teammates have in day to day life, once they’re in the boat, they’re all working towards a common goal. She also wants people to know that dragon boat racing is truly inclusive of all ability levels stating simply, “There’s a team for everyone.”

If anyone is interested in getting involved with this great organization, visittacomadragonboat.org. Practices happen four times a week, at a variety of times throughout the year.

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