Dragon Boat Season
Race 65 at the Stanley warm-up event, and we have landed ourselves in the mixed division’s bronze cup final. “Focus!” The captain on the adjacent boat hollers over his anxious team. Our vessel is parked in lane two of the starting line, protected from the incoming waves by an orange pontoon. This year, instead of watching from the relative comfort of the beach, I am right in the thick of the action.
Our drummer holds the bow line, a soggy coil of red rope ready to be cast aside at a moment’s notice. The waves rock us gently as I settle into a near-meditative state, breathing deeply with my eyes focused solely on the drum. At that moment the words of Lyn, our burly head coach, come echoing loudly back. “It doesn’t matter what all the other teams are doing. During the race, your body, your mind, your heart and your soul are all in this boat!”
A voice comes booming over the megaphone. “Boat one, move forward!” Our competitors shift with a light stroke of their paddles. “Boat three, move forward! Boat eight, move forward!” We sit at rest, muscles tensed and filled with burning anticipation. “READY!” A white flag, then a sharp collective movement: lean forward, paddles at 10 o’clock. The drummer makes her call. “PADDLES UP!” Thrusting them deep in the water, we lift ourselves off the seats, leg muscles pushing hard against the teak superstructure. Across all eight boats a flurry of activity ensues, quickly followed by a deafening, momentary silence.
The horn sounds with a piercing blast and our drummer shouts over the din: “GO!”
We push back with all our force, creating swirling eddies and crests of foam, arms moving in unison as we pick up the pace, feeling the boat gliding forward and lifting out of the water.
There are no distractions; no time to look around and see how the other boats are faring. Only the repetitive motion of our upper bodies, synchronised with the pacers – the front pair on each boat – and the constant rhythm of the drummer. Laboured breaths, high-powered strokes, flecks of spray flying into our wet faces. Summoning every ounce of strength from within, my mind has now turned to the red buoys marking the finish line.
Almost as soon as it all began, the race is suddenly over. At 1:07 our finishing time is two seconds slower than our best, but still enough to clinch third place. We hit the shore with a cheer, using up the minute amount of energy left in our reserves.
Throughout the day I learn that no amount of heavy rain and thunder can dampen our spirits or ruin a good party. We scream at the top of our lungs as our fellow teammates edge closer to the beach, their boat neck-and-neck with other strong competitors. I realise that dragon boating is more about going beyond your known physical limits, making new friends, and finding that the world is far smaller than once imagined.
* * *
Later that night I end up winding down the same roads towards Stanley, once filled with fellow dragon boaters but now almost entirely devoid of traffic. My brother and I have hitched a ride after a potluck dinner with old friends. We haven’t seen many of them for months. Above a wispy layer of cloud the full moon burns brightly, casting a gentle glow on the landscape under a midnight blue sky. Soon the view opens out to the dark waters of Tai Tam Bay, where the dragon boat races played out less than 12 hours before. The starting pontoon, now silent, is faintly lit by a line of small lights blinking in the dark.
At that moment I relive what it is like to be back on the water, feeling the cool ocean spray against my skin and paddling until our bodies ache. It has taken me months to grasp my brother’s sheer enthusiasm for dragon boating, but now, one year later, I completely understand.
Photo courtesy of Joe L., dragon boating coach