This weekend, the Bay waters will be filled with dragons. Well … dragon boats, anyway. The Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival takes place at Lake Merritt Saturday and Sunday. So, what’s Dragon Boat racing about?
I’m at Lake Merced in San Francisco for dragon boat practice. It's kind of smelly like usual, but you can get used to it when you're a paddler.
Our team name is called "CYC One Breath" and right now we’re practicing different paddling strokes we’ll use when we race. My coach Mike Ngo is giving paddling commands.
“Breath in, breath out. In. Out. Believe in each other guys! Believe in each other!”
A dragon boat looks like a gondola, but with a colorful scale pattern on it’s side. During a race there's a dragon tail attached to the back of the boat, and a head of a dragon on the front. It's a really old sport that originated from ancient China over 2000 years ago. Right now it’s still popular there and has moved into North America, Australia, and Europe.
Part of a family
There are about 18 or 19 paddlers on the boat today; all are students from different schools around Bay Area. Dragon boat is a workout, but our coach claps as he gives us positive feedback for having good timing and power.
“Good job! Way to pay attention to each other!”
This is one of the three practices my team has each week. The people I know joined dragon boat to get stronger, to meet new people and be part of a team they can call family. My teammate Nancy Jing is a veteran paddler.
“I really love dragon boat! Oh my god, I cannot express how much I love it! I used to be shy, but then dragon boat taught me to step out of my comfort zone. It also taught me to become more of a leader and not be scared to do what I want or say what I want,” says Jing.
She’s made a lot of friends over the years being on this team. It’s the same for the other paddlers too—dragon boat has become an important part of their lives.
“If there’s anything better than dragon boat itself, it's the bonding between your teammates,” Nancy explains. “That's something you can never get or buy. “
Maureen Moreno is another paddler. She's a captain in training.
“A race is the most intense thing I've ever experienced. Everyone is nervous lining up to the race line. It's just really scary. Sometimes you're neck to neck with other boats and the pressure is so high.”
The day after practice, I volunteer for a race at the Seaplane Lagoon in Alameda. There are air hangars in the distance and it’s a hot day. Teams practice for months and months to prepare for a race like this. Around me are student paddlers, adult paddlers, and spectators cheering, chattering, and eating. The paddlers are wearing their jerseys and personal flotation devices.
Jenny Lee is the captain of CYC Dragon Boat. Before she races she has a talk with her team. She’s always excited for her races.
“We've been practicing for approximately two months for this race, but I think our biggest one is going to be Long Beach in two weeks. So this is gonna be a little eye opener before that race.”
Today her team will be in a dragon boat sprint. Instead of going the normal 500 meters, they’ll go 250. Jenny and her team paddle to the start line - ready to race. The announcer preps all the racers.
“Hold hard please. Are you ready? Attention please!”
And with the sound of an air horn they take off.
Like in every race, each team does their best out on the water. Jenny’s team doesn’t get first place, but not everyone can win. She talks to me after the race.
“The wind really picked up and we had a lot of wakes in our boat. We experienced a lot of waves hitting at us.”
Today's race is over, but if you see a dragon racing across the water in the Bay Area—now you'll know what it is.
Jacky Chiu is a student at Burton High School in the San Francisco Unified School District. He produced this story as part of KALW's summer internship program