Dragon boat races in the middle of the prairies? Not the first sport that springs to mind when you think of the prairies. However, each year, COVID years excepted, the City of Regina hosts its annual Dragon Boat Festival.
I was a member of a team for seven years, three years with a mixed team (Algae Envy) and four with a women’s team (Dragon Our Cookies, most of whom were Girl Guides who those delicious GG cookies – get it?). We were definitely in the non-competitive category, which suited us just fine. We were there to do our best but mostly we were there to have fun.
Paddling a Dragon Boat is entirely different from paddling a canoe. The paddle is different – the handle is shorter and the blade is longer and squared off. With one hand, you grab the paddle just above the blade and with the other you grab the top of the knob at the end of the handle. The stroke is different – the paddle must stay vertical which means you have to lean over the side of the boat; furthermore, you use your entire upper body, not just your arms and shoulders, to pull the paddle. You reach forward as far as possible, drive the paddle into the water, and pull back with all your might. Repeat. Reach, pull. Reach, pull.
Halfway through the first practice, I’d ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I was older by decades than most of my team mates. My body was screaming. Muscles were cramping. I wasn’t even a Girl Guide! Good thing I had pre-booked massage sessions immediately following the first few practices. Call me a sucker for punishment — I kept coming back for more.
The night before Race Day, the Shinto priests arrive from Vancouver to perform the ceremony known as Awakening the Dragon. Although we look on the race as sport, for the Shinto, the Dragon Race has historical, cultural and spiritual significance. They awaken the dragon from its long slumber by dotting paint on its eyes. They pray for the safety of all the participants. One team is chosen to take the oath to harmony, friendship and peace.
Race day, and Wascana Park is packed with people, performers, martial arts demonstrators, face painters, and vendors. While everyone else parties, the teams assemble at the marshaling ground and the races are on. Four teams at a time, we line up at the starting line, jockeying our boat into position, trying to hold position, and waiting for the klaxon horn to start us off down the 500 meters to the other end of the lake.
A dragon boat with a team of 20+ people weighs about 2500 – 3000 pounds. We have about five seconds to get that 2500 pounds moving from “dead in the water” to cruising speed.
The first 10 or so strokes are long, slow and hard. We feel the boat shudder, groan, slowly lift up and begin to move forward. The next 10 or so strokes are fast, hard, deep, to build up speed. Then we settle into “race speed.” At that point, we have only one thing in mind – to keep in sync with the paddle in front of us and with our partner’s paddle. When we are in unison, the boat surges forward with each stroke. If not, we “caterpillar” and lose speed. We hear our drummer keeping the beat. We watch the paddle in front of us. Reach, pull. Reach, pull. Reach, pull.
“Power up!” We’re mid-way through the course, time to increase speed. We reach farther, pull harder for 20 strokes, then fall back to “Race Speed.”
By now, our muscles are screaming, “We’re tired! Give it up!” so we start to yell, primal screams and cries from deep inside us that dredge up energy from reserves we didn’t know we had. Reach, pull. Reach, pull. Reach, pull.
“FIN-I-I-I-SH!” And now we really paddle, reaching farther, pulling harder than we thought possible. We know the finish line is near, we don’t know how near, but that’s not the point. The point is to give it all and then some. REACH, PULL! REACH, PULL! REACH, PULL!
“Paddles DOWN!” We’re there! We’ve done it! We’ve survived! We collapse over our paddles. We’re gasping. We’re hoarse from yelling. Our hearts are pounding a million miles a minutes. There’s more adrenaline than blood coursing through our bodies.
Then we hear the crowd cheering. We revive, raise our paddles in acknowledgment of the crowd, and begin a much more leisurely paddle back to the dock. We hear our unofficial time announced over the loudspeaker. Not bad, we think.
Two hours later, we do it all over again. If our combined times are good enough, we get to do it once more, in the finals.
In 2006, the last year I participated, Dragon Our Cookies made it to the finals and came in third. It was a good way to go out.
If I were 40 years younger, I’d still be doing it.
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