Dragon boats add to Seattle's maritime mix on Opening Day
Dragon boats, a relatively recent addition to Seattle's maritime scene, come from a colorful Chinese tradition. Local clubs welcome paddlers of all ages and abilities. Watch for them on Opening Day at Montlake Cut
The Seattle Flying Dragons club has just acquired a third boat, and invites new paddling members. Paddlers are invited to sample three free 60-to-90-minute practice sessions on Lake Union before committing to the $100 annual dues. Just show up at practice times: Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 p.m., Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., at Kenmore Air's Lake Union dock, 950 Westlake Ave. N. More information:www.seattleflyingdragons.org.
Other area clubs
Seattle Sake Dragon Boat Club, Leschi/Seattle: www.clubsake.com
Kent Dragon Boat Association, Lake Meridian: kentdragonboat.com
Tacoma Dragon Boat Association, Tacoma: tacomadragonboat.org
Washington Dragon Boat Association, Tacoma: washingtondragonboat.com
North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club, Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island: www.npsdragonboat.org
Rainier Dragon Boat Festival, May 14, at Thea's Park, Foss Waterway, Tacoma. More information: washingtondragonboat.com.
Brooding clouds scudded over South Lake Union on a cool spring evening, riding winds that whipped up splashy waves. As a distant curtain of rain veiled Gas Works Park, a startling green dragon head surged southward, inches above the inky surface, its wispy beard dripping with lake water as it passed Rock Salt steakhouse.
"Now give me a perfect 10, green boat!" shouted Seattleite Lee Bjorklund, standing tall in the stern of the 41-foot-long dragon boat, gripping a steering oar and coaching his team of paddlers to give 10 rounds of their best strokes as they raced to catch a similar boat with a red dragon head at its bow.
With each adrenaline-stoked dip of the paddles, the green dragon head on Bjorklund's boat jerked forward, like a pull-toy on a taut string.
This was Wednesday-night practice for the Seattle Flying Dragons paddling club, which has nothing to do with Loch Ness, or monsters — except for having a monstrously good time, maybe.
Dragon heads decorate the boats' bows, just ahead of the ceremonial drummer, all part of the 2,400-year-old dragon-boat tradition that migrated to this country from China in the 1980s and has taken its place alongside sculling, kayaking and canoeing on lakes and rivers across North America. Seattle-area clubs boast about 250 paddlers.
The dragon boat is just one more interesting watercraft on the Seattle boating scene, and it will be part of this Saturday's annual fete to the fleet, the Opening Day boat parade and races through Montlake Cut. If you plan to be a spectator, practice your queenly wave. The folks in the dragon boats will be busy paddling.
Huge biceps not required
Besides the cool dragon décor — usually mounted on the boats for races, not practices — dragon boating has become popular, in part, because you don't have to be a young, muscle-bulged athlete to participate. Recent Flying Dragons members have ranged in age from 14 to 85.
Synchronicity among a boat's 20 paddlers is more key to scooting across the water than the team's collective bicep measurement, Valerie Robb, the club's women's team coach, told me when I showed up to try it myself.
On land, she did a dry demonstration of how a paddler uses the whole body to reach forward and dip the paddle fully into the water, then leaning back to pull the paddle and propel the boat. "If we just used our arms, we'd get too tired too fast!"
The novelty attracts newcomers to the sport. The endorphins keep them coming.
"I started coming out in 2005 and thought I was just going for a nice paddle around the lake — and found it was a real workout!" said Robb, 56, of Redmond. "I've gotten fit in spite of myself. Doing this gets in your blood."
Camaraderie is obviously also a part of it. These people have fun.
"I just like the fact that we're on the water!" says Bjorklund, 64, a retiree from Weyerhaeuser's corporate communications department. Because the club is committed to a roster of summertime races, members practice on the lake four times a week year-round. In the winter, they'll be out after dark, when "the city lights up like a Christmas tree, the freeway is nothing but red lights ... the moon comes up over St. Mark's — and we occasionally howl at the moon! It's just absolutely gorgeous out there!"
While I got coached on paddling technique, the club regulars in red life jackets and spotted green jerseys did warm-up exercises in the parking lot at their home base, the Lake Union seaplane dock for Kenmore Air.
Everyone loaded into the boats according to their weight and size, to keep balance. Paddlers sit two abreast on seats that average about 30 inches wide.
"Paddles in the water!" came the call from Bjorklund, our coach and "steers-
person," as he's called, in the stern. We quickly moved away from the dock as paddlers on both sides of the boat worked together in splashy rhythm.
Lynelle Thon Hall, 46, who works in the business office at Group Health, was my no-nonsense paddling partner, a four-year veteran of dragon boating.
"You need to reach forward more with your paddle!" she soon let me know.
I kept an eye on the paddlers ahead of me and tried to do as they did, when they did it. "You should turn your body inward slightly as you pull," Thon Hall urged, "so that we look at each other."
I reached and splashed and pulled. "I don't see you!" Thon Hall reminded, jarring me back into the pull and turn, pull and turn routine.
I quickly realized that coming to paddling practice straight from my office job without changing clothes wasn't the brightest move. When these dragon boats get going, they really book. The drum beats, the paddles fly. And water splashes. All over slacks. And in big puddles around shoes.
"Are you cold?" Thon Hall asked after a while. That breeze was still blowing.
"Uh, I'm pretty wet," I observed.
"I didn't ask if you were wet." (It's a boat — you're supposed to expect wet.)
But no, the brisk pace kept me warm.
In fact, a dragon boat with an in-synch crew of paddlers can move so fast — the world record for a 500-meter race is 1 minute, 43 seconds — that the Seattle crew pulled a 145-pound water skier as a demonstration during a Lake Union Wooden Boat Show two years ago.
Division of labor
In the middle of the lake, our boat paused while paddlers in each row carefully swapped sides, row by row, each with a chant of "Ready, hut, ho!" They do it so nobody gets tired of paddling on one side, or develops what they call a "lobster arm" — an overmuscled limb, like a lobster with one big claw.
Everybody contributes, even when they're not on the water. Club member Keith Meicho made the colorful dragon heads and tails, using the same tooling foam that he works with in his boatbuilding job.
The dragons' scraggly beards? Horsehair, from a club member's horse.
So on Saturday, when you see the Seattle Flying Dragons paddling like a well-oiled machine through the Montlake Cut, show your support. Wave. Or roar like a dragon. Or maybe even give a whinny.
And keep an eye peeled. You never know, there could be water skiers.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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