The Dragon Awakens

In the last couple of years many of my peers took the first step towards retirement by leaving the Silicon Valley for more peaceful and less pricey environs where they could work remotely. Most moved out of California, but I settled on moving across the Bay to the city of Alameda.

Alameda is an island city just to the south of Downtown Oakland. It’s close to San Francisco, but has a small town ambiance that has long vanished in the rest of the Bay Area. After an epic house hunt, I bought a condo on the water with views from every room and just enough space for a home office.

Right out my door is a boat marina. After a short time of gazing at the boats all day, you start to think you need to own one. Since I didn’t make millions on stock options during my time in the Valley, a yacht was out of the question. I explored kayaks and stand up paddle boards, even parasailing. But the gear can get pricey, and they are all pretty solitary sports for a girl who is new in town. I also thought about crew teams, but rowing can be hard on your knees at my age.

Enter the Dragon

Then a neighbor introduced herself and asked if I wanted to join a dragon boat team. “Yes,” I said, “I do want to join a dragon boat team.” And so I started on my way to becoming an Alameda DragonFlyer.

I was aware of dragon boats from my younger days when I lived in Oakland and would see them on Lake Merritt. In contrast to the ungainly whale boats on the lake, the dragon boats were long and elegant. The crews seemed to include plenty of middle aged women, so I filed dragon boating away in the back of my mind as an option for my later years.

A dragon boat is a 40-foot long boat paddled by 20 people sitting 2 abreast with a steersperson at the rear and, during races, a drummer on the bow. The boats can be wood, fiberglass, even cement, or a combination of any of the above.

Based on my observations of the boats on the lake, dragon boating seemed like a relatively leisurely pursuit. That was my first mistake. Dragon boating is a racing sport. And shortly after my encounter with the neighbor, the largest race of the year was being held at Treasure Island. So I went to observe.

The Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival is one of the biggest events of the dragon boat racing season. That year it took place at the Seaplane Lagoon at Treasure Island — another island in the Bay that was recently vacated by the Navy. The festival seemed to stretch for blocks and blocks. There were teams from up and down the West Coast as well as from Asia. A pair of announcers called each race over the PA. A flurry of boat loading and unloading and marshalling of teams seemed to be going on in all directions.

I visited the DragonFlyers camp which to an outsider seemed equally chaotic. But I could assertain that the team mostly was made up of people like me  —  40 to 60 trying to keep active and healthy.

So despite the intimidation factor of the huge event, I was ready to give it a try. After all, it was a new chapter in my life, so what better time to try something different.

The Dragon Lady Within

A few years ago I was talking informally with a group of medical device investors about the potential for technology to increase human longevity. The one guy said, “but it’s not that we will be living longer, it’s that we will be old longer.”

These words came back to haunt me after I hit the half-century mark. I see friends and family my own age or younger being hit with cardiovascular problems, joint degeneration and diabetes. My parents are both still alive and in their eighties. They both have had heart problems that are being treated but quality of life-wise they are plagued with a million little ailments. Literally death by a thousand cuts.

Last year I turned fifty-five, the age when I qualify to take my pension and for seniors’ pricing at some museums. To sum it up: officially old. I am in good health and quick to advocate that 60 is the new 30, but I started to worry that that’s not going to be enough.

I’ve always been more of an indoor kind of girl. I was actually relegated to something akin to remedial phys ed in elementary school: what they called “coordination class”.

In my twenties I took up running modestly. I’d run around Lake Merritt or do 5 miles on the treadmill. When I developed bone spurs in my feet, I switched to 3 miles on the elliptical. When my neighborhood gym closed down, I tired different facilities but none were quite as convenient and the routine became boring.

After I moved to Alameda last year, I resolved to find a new fitness regime. Living on the marina, I felt a bit of an obligation take up a water sport. Since owning a sailing yacht is probably not in the cards, I thought about paddle boarding but it looked hard on the knees. Kayaking was another option but seems kind of solitary.

Back when I was running around the Lake I would see a dragon boat team practicing and thought someday when I have more flexibility in my schedule that’s something I should do. Dragon boats, for the uninitiated, are long narrow boats manned by up to 20 paddlers sitting two abreast. And the boats have a dragon head and tail. The group on the Lake appeared to be mostly female and middle-aged so it didn’t look too intimidating.

So when a neighbor invited me to join the local dragon boat team, I jumped at the idea. I went out to the big international dragon boat festival on Treasure Island last September and signed on soon after.

Now in all honesty, dragon boating turned out to be much more work than I expected. The stroke is not the most natural or obvious movement and some of these people are seriously

competitive – by my experience – even on our “recreational” team. On the upside there was the opportunity for me to shop for all kinds of dragon boat gear. Shopping is an activity much closer to my wheelhouse.

Since I started late in the season, I missed the novice initiation in the Spring. So I was mostly faking it until it got too cold for me to venture out on the water on Saturday mornings. But I wasn’t hitting people with my paddle and I wasn’t splashing too much.

This Spring I took to the water again. This time around with the help of the coaching staff I just finished my first race and our boat came in second!

In the quest for the fountain of youth people have been driven to try things much more drastic than joining a dragon boat team. While I have no illusion of turning back time, at least I might be able to extend my active middle years a bit by summoning up my inner dragon lady.

Paddles up!