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Dragon Boat Season

Preparing for the Stanley warm-up race

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 found myself winding down the same roads towards Stanley, now almost entirely devoid of traffic. My brother and I had hitched a ride after a potluck dinner with old friends, many of whom we hadn’t seen for months. Above a wispy layer of cloud the full moon burned brightly, casting a gentle glow on the landscape under a midnight blue sky. Soon the view opened out to the dark waters of Tai Tam Bay, where the dragon boat races had played out less than 12 hours before. The starting pontoon, now silent, was faintly lit by a line of small lights blinking in the dark.

At that moment I relived what it was like to be back on the water, feeling the cool ocean spray against my skin and paddling until our bodies ached. It had taken me months to grasp my brother’s sheer enthusiasm for dragon boating, but now, one year later, I completely understood.

Photo courtesy of Joe L., dragon boating coach

72 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alive and in the moment, going beyond any self-imposed limit – yes, I can see, you’re hooked! Great piece James, and congratulations on the third. 🙂

    May 28, 2013
    • Absolutely, Meredith! It all ends with the main race in the middle of June, but I’m already contemplating the next season… thanks too for the wishes. 😀

      May 28, 2013
  2. Descriptive writing at its best James! Felt I was there rooting for you. Great job on both counts 🙂

    May 28, 2013
    • Thank you Madhu, that’s very flattering! 😀
      Now if only I brought my camera that day…

      May 28, 2013
    • Hey James, congratulations! Freshly Pressed….again! Well deserved 🙂

      May 31, 2013
      • Thanks again, Madhu – it was such a surprise! 🙂

        June 4, 2013
  3. I had to hold my breath when reading this. You brilliantly captured every single moment in your words. My only experience paddling was in the calm water of Jatiluhur, on a canoe with a friend of mine. 🙂

    May 28, 2013
    • Wow Bama, I really appreciate it! This is not my usual kind of post, but I felt compelled to write about the experience of competing in a dragon boat race. Glad you enjoyed at as much as you did. 😀

      May 28, 2013
  4. Hi James! Your excellent text made me feel like I was there with you — I can almost feel the spray and the rain in my face. Great post, mate!!!

    May 28, 2013
    • Thanks for the kind words, Stephen!

      May 28, 2013
  5. My hearts was palpitating <along with you and your team mates! Great writing! 🙂

    May 29, 2013
    • Cheers James, glad it took you right there to the moment!

      May 29, 2013
  6. Great writing! You racing on June 13th? I’m headed over to Hong Kong to see the races?

    May 29, 2013
    • Thanks! The main race this year is on the 12th – I’ll be competing once again at Stanley.

      May 29, 2013
      • Yikes, must of been half asleep when I wrote that comment. Haha, yea June 12th (and don’t know why I put a question mark on the end of my statement) So there will races in Stanley and Victoria Harbor? Which do you recommend going to?

        May 30, 2013
      • On that day I think there are at least nine dragon boat races all over Hong Kong – not sure if any of them are in Victoria Harbour though, those ones usually take place towards the end of the month.

        Stanley is the biggest of the nine races, and the most international one, so you can expect a lot of crowds and crazy costumes. It’s a whole-day event so you could come in the morning for a while (when crowds are lighter) and stay until lunchtime… traffic gets crazy after that!

        May 30, 2013
  7. Nice post. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    May 31, 2013
  8. I wish i could be there to experience the event.

    May 31, 2013
    • Dragon boating can be quite the workout, but it’s a lot of fun!

      June 4, 2013
  9. wow, you really where the one rowing… quiet descriptive… reminds me of the snake boat race which happens in changanacherry, kerela india.
    how long do u practice?
    and this hapens once a year? whats the occasion?

    May 31, 2013
    • I’d love to see the snake boat races one day… and get a feel for how they compare to dragon boating. We usually practice for about 4-5 months, starting in February, ahead of the main races in June.

      Dragon boating is part of “Duanwu”, a traditional Chinese festival that is held during the summer solstice, but it also commemorates a drowned poet.

      June 4, 2013
      • wow quiet an event it is…
        in kerela, india its called “vallum kali” its part of the harvest festival called “onam”.
        one must witness this exorbitant and colourful festival. simply enriching.

        June 6, 2013
  10. My friend was luck enough to go to Beijing last year for DragonBoat races for our school. I’m a rower but I’ve always wanted to try DragonBoating. So now, after reading this, I will! 🙂 Loved this post.

    May 31, 2013
    • I’ve had friends who’ve done both and they tel me dragon boating is actually more difficult than rowing! Toronto has dragon boat teams as well, so you could give it a go in the next season. 🙂

      June 4, 2013
  11. Even on a large lake, these are a site to behold. I took my son two summers ago to a festival and watching different teams row and hearing those drums was amazing. Thanks for this post… It triggered good memories.

    May 31, 2013
    • My pleasure, Rachel. Maybe someday your son will be out rowing on the water!

      June 4, 2013
      • I hope so. Right now paddle boating is on the summer agenda.

        June 5, 2013
  12. Really enjoy your writing style. Makes me wish I was in Hong Kong getting involved!

    May 31, 2013
    • Thank you, Greg! Being the birthplace of the modern sport, Hong Kong is one of the best places to see it in action.

      June 4, 2013
  13. Well written! 🙂 I like the photograph! I wish I can go back to Taiwan for such an event. It’s good you can experience it in Hong Kong. 🙂

    May 31, 2013
    • Appreciate that, Eileen. 🙂 I guess dragon boating must be a big deal in Taiwan as well!

      June 4, 2013
  14. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed again.

    May 31, 2013
  15. I missed it so much.

    May 31, 2013
    • Think they also do dragon boat races in Boracay… that must be one spectacular setting for the sport!

      June 4, 2013
      • They do. The Philippine team is actually one of the strongest dragon boat team out there.

        Have join some local competition here in Japan before , it’s an experience you can never forget 🙂

        June 4, 2013
  16. This is an awesome post. I love it!

    May 31, 2013
  17. Reblogged this on iLook China.

    May 31, 2013
  18. I must say, well done James! It must be one of the exciting moments of your life.

    May 31, 2013
    • Thanks for that, James! I’ll most likely join the team again next year… dragon boating is surprisingly addictive!

      June 4, 2013
      • Good to hear that James. It will keep you physically and mentally fit.

        June 6, 2013
  19. I wish that dragon boating would come to the US? Do you know if it does?

    May 31, 2013
  20. Great post. I dragon boat too, and you really captured what it feels like to be in the boat. I raced in the 2011 dragon boat festival in Victoria Harbour. It was a blast! Very different to racing on our (generally calm) lake back home in Canberra, Australia.

    May 31, 2013
    • The water conditions make such a difference, don’t they? Victoria Harbour is notoriously choppy, so that would explain the line of ships blocking off the race venue. This season we’ve rarely had flat water in Stanley… but I guess it’s good practice!

      June 4, 2013
  21. thank you for the post 😀

    June 1, 2013
  22. Congrats. on third place finish in the race…and for being Freshly Pressed again.

    When I return to Vancouver BC later next month, I might have just missed their annual dragon boat races in False Creek. It’s a huge deal.

    June 1, 2013
    • Thank you, Jean! I would love to see the races on False Creek someday, it must be quite the spectacle.

      June 4, 2013
  23. I spent a year as a coxswain. It was hard, brutal and enlightening as hell. I could really relate to this experience. Thanks!

    June 2, 2013
    • You’re welcome, A.K. – I’m glad it resonated with your own experience!

      June 4, 2013
  24. Reblogged this on hayleebragg and commented:
    I’ll be going to Chicago this summer to attend the Chinatown summer festival to see amazing events like this. I’m so excited! I can’t wait to visit Chicago for the first time (other than a layover). I’ll even be staying in Chinatown for the week.

    June 6, 2013
    • It’d be interesting to see if they dragon boat race on Lake Michigan – now that would be pretty spectacular!

      June 14, 2013
  25. James! I feel like we need to catch up. I have been a mess these days and haven’t been able to fully catch up on your blog, but I missed it too much and am sneaking this into my lunch 🙂 This sounds so cool & congrats on your team placing! When did you join a team and start training?

    June 7, 2013
    • No worries Erica – I haven’t had much time to check out your blog either! Must go over and see what you’ve been up to. 🙂 I joined a dragon boat team back in February, mostly at the behest of my brother but also partially because I love being out on the ocean. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t discover it earlier!

      June 14, 2013
      • yeah.. It’s been an erm, interesting few months for me with a bit of writer’s block on the side. No worries. We will catch up some time 🙂

        That’s awesome! And hey, at least you started, right? There are some things that I wish I did and just haven’t really tried yet… must fix that.

        June 29, 2013
  26. Fantastic story! I felt like I was right there at the race. I’ve read about these races in the past before and the intense training you have to undergo. How long did you have to train for this race?

    http://lifeismuyfantastico.wordpress.com/

    June 7, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed it as much as you did. 🙂 Our team trained between 3-4 months before the races. It was very intense at times but we only trained every Sunday whereas some other teams did it twice or even three times a week!

      June 14, 2013
  27. What an experience James, and beautifully told. Plus I have found that any opportunity to understand what makes a sibling tick is time well spent! Congratulations on your third FP – richly deserved. All the best, Terri

    June 12, 2013
    • Thank you, Terri! Have to say there was a bit of sibling rivalry involved but it was purely friendly… 🙂

      June 14, 2013
  28. superb and enjoyed thoroughly!

    June 12, 2013
    • My pleasure, I appreciate it!

      June 14, 2013
  29. I did hold my breath when reading this. Your description dragged me to the boat down to the finish line. I wonder if there’s a team out there consisting of 30-something year old men. Haha.

    Greetings from Jakarta

    June 12, 2013
    • Age is not a big deal, Manmatha – lots of teams have members of 30- and 40-something year olds, in fact most of the best ones here at Stanley did! Makasih for the comment, I have a soft spot for Indonesia and ku kan pergi ke Lombok Juli ini. 😉

      June 14, 2013
  30. The only dragon boat race I’ve seen is the one done yearly in Flushing, New York. But your vivid account actually makes me feel like I was right there on the boat, as opposed to being a mere spectator. This may be my first time visiting your site but I already admire your gift of writing.

    June 20, 2013
    • Thanks for the kind words, Dennis. I had a look at your blog and I really love the photography – the colours really stand out in each shot! Have to say I’m more than a little envious that you were recently in Easter Island, that’s been at the top of my wishlist for years now!

      June 21, 2013

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