A 2,000-year-old sport glides its way to Southwest Florida—and the World Championships—thanks to its one and only competitive dragon boat racing team.
For over 2,000 years, traditional dragon boats have raced through the rivers of Southern China. Chinese villagers have held these revered races on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month for generations as part of a ritual intended to avert misfortune and encourage the rains. In hopes of bringing on a prosperous rice crop, they offered this activity as worship to the dragon, an ancient symbol of water, who rules the seas, the rivers, the clouds, and the rains.
Traditionally made of teak, these ritual boats would skim sleekly through the water, manned by 12 to 16 paddlers, a drummer to keep a steady rhythm, and a “sweep” to steer. Twelve meters long and colorfully decorated with dragon heads and tails, the boats were an amazing display of energy and speed.
Dragon boat racing has since evolved from its religious roots and become one of the world’s fastest-growing competitive water sports. International competitions have been held since 1976, when crews from other nations were first invited to Hong Kong to participate in the race. Following this lead, other independent races began to spring up in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. By the 1980s, the sport began to develop official rules and regulations. This ancient racing ritual was on its way to becoming an internationally recognized competitive sport.
With so many independent clubs and associations sprouting up, leaders of the sport began to develop the modern Continental and World federations, complete with official meetings and recorded minutes. The European Dragon Boat Federation (EDBF), International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), and Asian Dragon Boat Federation (ADBF) all emerged in the early 1990s, and the Oceania Dragon Boat Federation (ODBF) was formed in 2009. These independent federations act as representatives of the sport, although all recognize the IDBF as the world governing body, which also operates the international world competition every two years.
So what does dragon racing, an ancient Chinese sport, have to do with our little corner of the world? Quite a lot, it seems.
This August, six athletes from Southwest Florida will be part of TEAM USA and race in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Welland, Ontario, within Senior Division C. For over a year, these impressive competitors have undergone intensive training to prepare themselves for the rigorous selection trials around the country.
The US team will race the modern, 40-foot dragon boats decorated with colorful dragon heads and tails equipped with 20 paddlers, one drummer, and one sweep to comprise a crew of 22. Team members are chosen from all over the country for each Open, Women’s, and Mixed crew team. Race distances are 250 meters for the short race, 500 meters for the standard race, and 2,000 meters for the long race.
Since the boat can only reach maximum speed if the paddlers are stroking in sync, working as a team is critical. All paddles must enter and exit the water at the same time, which is achieved by following the front two paddlers, called “strokers,” who set the pace. The drummer provides the heartbeat of the boat, his or her beat cuing each stroke so the entire crew can pull together. Behind the drummer are the second seats, where the lighter paddlers are found. Beyond them is the bulk of the crew, with the heaviest and strongest paddlers seated in the center of the boat. This section is known as the “engine room” because the most thrust and power is found here. The sweep, also known as a “steerman,” steers the boat with a sweep oar at the rear of the boat; this paddler often calls out commands if there is an obstruction in the water.
With five paddlers and one sweep, our local six comprise an integral part of the American crew. In addition to coming from a variety of fitness practices (marathoners, cyclists, yogis, windsurfers, and CrossFitters are represented), all of these athletes have been paddling dragon boats locally for many years.
Even more impressive? They’re all over the age of 60.
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The “Draggin’ Dragons” are the Charlotte Harbor Paddlers’ competitive dragon boat team. Cathy Getz will be the team’s sweep at the Worlds, playing a key role on the boat and one that takes a lot of experience to safely maneuver them all from the start to the finish line. In addition to steering the boat, she communicates with all the paddlers and ensures they stay on course.
The Dragons give the boat a strong start with Carol Lynn Higley holding the second seat and Marilyn Gladish not far behind. These ladies are quick and strong. Then there’s Jack Sain, George Gershowitz, and Jim Getz (Cathy’s husband) in the engine room. These three bring strength and endurance to the crew. All of these athletes have trained rigorously to earn their positions and hope to help win the gold for Team USA.
But without their coach, the members of the Draggin’ Dragons could not have come so far. Behind the scenes is their Dragon Master, Bob Brazeau, who provides the training program, instruction, and guidance to bring them to the top. It is thanks to Bob’s countless hours of training and faith that these athletes have earned their places on the US team. During his career, Bob raced for the Canadian team in many competitions, including the Worlds.
It has taken a lot of work for this team to come so far, and they are all honored to have made it. Dragon boating is not an easy sport, but it is a shining example of teamwork and synchronicity that is on the rise in public appreciation and participation. In fact, with its strong presence at Worlds, it might even be said that 2015 is truly the year of the dragon.
“I showed up, they put a wooden paddle in my hand, and I was hooked,” Gladish recalls. “It was the first time I was ever involved in a team sport. It truly is different in that we all depend on each other giving and being our best together.”
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