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Boating, Chinese style: Dragon boats gains fans

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Dragon boat festivals will be held this summer across the United States. (Provided by Texas Dragon Boat Association)

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Dragon boating is growing in popularity outside China, and now is reported to be the fastest growing team water sports internationally. (Provided by Texas Dragon Boat Association)

When David Chan took part in his first dragon boat race on Boston’s Charles River nine years ago, it was a washout. Most of the team members didn’t know how to paddle in unison and the drummer, who pounded out a beat to guide the paddlers, was a musical disaster. Today, Chan, a 46-year-old IT analyst and now captain of a team, is working hard to ensure his boat is ready for the next race in June.

“The whole process of trying to make order out of chaos is part of the enjoyment,” Chan said.

Dragon-boating has come a long way from its roots in imperial China. It's among the fastest growing team water sports, with tens of thousands of participants in over 60 countries, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation--and the race in Boston is just one of many in North America. To underscore its growing popularity, a dragon boat is scheduled to carry the Olympic torch bearer across the Shing Mun River in Hong Kong on May 2 in its final leg to the Beijing Olympics.

“Dragon-boating is something a little bit different that people haven’t seen before,” said Audrey Trevino, who helps organize Houston’s annual dragon boat festival, scheduled for May 3.

The boat, typically 39 feet long, is a canoe-like vessel weighing about 1,750 pounds. Traditionally, boats were made of teak, but today's high-tech hulls are constructed of Fiberglas with closed-cell foam for buoyancy. In a nod to tradition, however, the boats are rigged during races with ornate Chinese dragon heads and tails. The boats are propelled by 20 paddlers--10 to a side--and feature a drummer who sets the pace of the paddle motions. A 22nd team member steers the vessel.

To win a race, which run about a half a mile, "all the paddlers have to be in synch,” said Peter Kai Jung Lew, race director of of the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Boston. “Anyone can be stronger than the next, but if they don’t work together they collide.”

Though the sport may seem trendy, dragon boating is ancient. Chinese legend has it that, in 277 B.C., fishermen in long boats beat drums to keep fish from eating the body of Qu Yuan, a beloved minister to the emperor during the Zhou dynasty. Qu Yuan had thrown himself into the river in despair after the emperor had failed to follow his advice in a war, and the Zhou empire was defeated.

In China, the races are traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the anniversary of Qu Yuan's death.

The modern era of dragon boat racing began in 1976, with the first annual international races in Hong Kong. Large events are now held in Vancouver, Toronto, New York and Tampa Bay, Fla. This October, for the first time, Walt Disney World in Orlando will host its own festival.

“The sport has grown and it will continue to grow,” said Robert Morro, an executive committee member of the international federation. “It’s just an infant right now, but we’re approaching the toddler stage.”

Originally, dragon boat festivals sprang up in cities with large Chinese populations. But nowadays, the sport is attracting mixed-gender teams sponsored by companies, community groups and clubs. “There is definitely a lot of historical tradition behind it,” Lew said. “But the sport has evolved to a point where it can stand alone without the mystique.”

Loc Nguyen, coach of the Houston Heat dragon boat team, says that many people are attracted to the sport because it involves a strong element of teamwork.

“It’s a sport that requires team effort,” Nguyen said. “It’s human nature to want to be a part of something. It offers people a sense of belonging.”

But that same aspect also creates challenges, said Chan, of the Boston team.

“Every year I’m on the verge of quitting, he said. The main challenge is fitting practices around teammates' busy schedules. “Sometimes that’s more challenging than getting people to paddle in synch with one another,” he said.

But he isn’t throwing in the towel yet.

“We train hard and push ourselves because we want to win," says Chan. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun.”

E-mail: yv2121@columbia.edu