Dragon Boats in our Midst

It’s Saturday morning, end of May, just after 9 am. The sun is shining its full morning blaze behind the generous shade of pollen-rich trees. I’ve already started glistening through my tank top and yoga pants and, boy, am I excited. I mean, I’ve been given the opportunity to practice with our state’s one and only Ocean State Dragon Boat Racing Club Team! What’s more Rhode Island than that?

I’m not from here, but I have fallen in love with all this state has to offer. I’m always looking for ways to experience the essence and heart of Rhode Island firsthand. To that end, I’ve tried coffee milk, cabinets, quahogs, Saugy’s, Del’s, local beers & whiskeys and I’ve learned a few Rhode Island phrases. Now I’m ready for some Dragon Boat racing. When I first heard about it, I thought there would be someone nearby mixing up a pitcher of dark and stormies, but I didn’t find any ginger beer at pond’s edge. This Dragon Boat racing team is different. This is a serious sporting endeavor. These people are committed.

I was introduced to the team by Michaela Foulkes, a team member. I did some research into this sport and I learned that internationally, Dragon Boat racing is a huge deal – kind of like World Cup soccer. So when they asked me to join them for a practice as a reporter, I jumped at the opportunity.

Picture this: About 20 of us form a circle and begin warming up together as a group. I’m not-so-subtly amazed when we begin stretching at the edge of a lovely hidden pond tucked behind a beauty supply store in Providence. The rest of the world seems to have fallen off and the brightest thing, other than the hot sun, is the anticipation of climbing into the boat. The paddlers sit two to a row according to their job: the “rocket” paddles the rear, the “engine room” comprises the middle, the front houses the “stroke box,” first row contains the “pacers” and at the very front sits the drummer. (Yes. A drummer. With a big ‘ol drum. Picture that pacekeeping guy in the movie Ben Hur – but tiny – and you’ll get the idea. Boom boom boom boom… )

Everyone lines up outside the boat according to their job, and we climb in two at a time. Once everyone is settled, we “hand-walk” the boat gently off the dock and glide out onto the still water. Hand-walking involves leaning over the rail from a seated position, and launching the boat into the water by gently pushing off the dock. That’s a first for me.

Joe (the coach) and Meghan Arnold (a lead “pacer,”) have been with the team since its inception. These guys run the whole operation, and patiently set me on the right track for this adventure. Coach Joe informs me that I won’t be rowing at all. No one, in fact, will be rowing. You see, dragon boat racers PADDLE, which makes it a different sport altogether. An eight-man crew rowing a racing shell and dragon boat racing are both sports involving long, slender boats that speed across the water, but dragon boat racing is different somehow. It’s fierce. It’s like rowing (but paddling) on steroids … with 20 people per boat … and a drummer on the bow, not some jockey-sized coxswain at the stern (dragon boat drummers are generally super light, especially since they’re up on the bow). Not that I need to worry about it, though, since, in my role as reporter, I’m neither paddling nor drumming — just ballast.

One might think it would be loud with so many people on the vessel. But Coach Joe informed us that there will be one voice we hear – his voice – and darn if he wasn’t right. He gives instructions and the team performs in unison. Once we’re out on the water, the team responds to every single call instantly. From “Stroke,” to something that sounds like “way enough” (which I took to mean “Stop paddling, we’ve made enough way”). The Coach calls and the team responds. The pond shores echo with the paddler’s grunts as they sprint to the end of the training runs. My only job, however, was to hold on and not tip the boat. I was glad I warmed up with the team because, when they got up to speed, I had to use every muscle in my body to keep balanced and not get launched from the sheer force of the padding.

In hindsight, I should have been prepared for it. After all, the Rhode Island Dragon Boat Racing Club just so happens to be ranked 7th in the Northeast Region out of 281 club teams. This team trains with discipline and purpose. As we cut through the water, I look down the boat at the crew and am impressed to see such a diverse international representation. Their unifying bond is their sense of purpose and intensity. This team loves what they do, and train to win. With each stroke and with each beat of the drum, they give it their all.

I would be remiss if I didn’t express my thanks to Louis Yip and Sunny Ng for bringing Dragon Boat racing to Rhode Island, and for donating the Taiwanese-style boats for the Pawtucket Dragon Boat and Taiwan Day Festival which is part of the Pawtucket Arts Festival. Meghan Arnold also mentioned to me a new team they’ve recently formed. “Joe, Carolina and I are coaching this year, Gloria’s Warriors, a breast cancer survivor support group with the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource foundation.”

The Ocean State Dragon Boat Race club team is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. If you want to play on the water and give Dragon Boat Racing a try in a more casual environment, now is a great time to start. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council will be hosting the Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races & Taiwan Day Festival on September 8 in Pawtucket. If “casual” isn’t your thing and you’re interested in some serious competition, not for nuthin’, but I know a guy…

The next Ocean State Dragon Boat Club Race will be June 9-10 at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival. You can find out more at oceanstatedragons.org. Motif will be covering Pawtucket Arts Festival participants and performers by involving reporters in their preparations for the festival. Watch future issues to read about their experiences. 

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