During the racing season, the Alameda DragonFlyers devote one practice a week to welcome newcomers. Novices can come to up to three practices without any commitment or fees to see if dragon boating is for them.
Coach John takes charge of the novice boats which also include a handful of experienced paddlers. Orientation starts on the shore where John and another paddler demonstrate the stroke while sitting in a chair. A big obstacle for new paddlers to overcome is that the dragon boat strokeis not like rowing or paddling a canoe where your arms do most of the work.
Since dragon boating is a racing sport, we need more power than even the burliest paddler could deliver through his or her arms. We need to be powered by all of those big muscles in your core and your butt. So the arms stay relatively still holding the paddle and you rotate your body to bring the paddle through the water.
Now, full disclosure time, my athleticism has been confined to jogging around Lake Merritt and going 3 miles on the elliptical in the gym. I have never participated in a team sport outside of phys ed, and in that case I was relegated to “coordination class”, which is, to put it bluntly, remedial PE.
So sitting on the shore listening to John talk about engaging all of these core muscles I started to worry that dragon boating wasn’t going to be like a leisurely kayak ride around the estuary. I seem to have come to this revelation rather late, since the week before I had watched teams from around the world compete furiously at the Nor Cal race. But I had convinced myself that this “recreational” team would be my speed.
I had been advised not to wear jeans or cotton clothing that would be slow to dry, so I wore my running tights and a half-zip top from Nike. Us novice paddlers needed to be fitted with a PFD(personal floatation device — dragon boat speak for a life jacket) and a paddle. And everyone got a bottle of water.
As we back paddled away from the dock, I realized I was in this for the duration. I’m much more comfortable with any activity I can bail out of at my own discretion. Welcome to team sports.
Once away from the dock John (who like all dragon boat coaches sits on the bow of the boat facing the paddlers) explains that we are going to practice some basics, but promises this outing will provide the seasoned paddlers with “a good workout”. Again, I contemplate the possibility of swimming to shore.
Because an efficient dragon boat stroke is not intuitive, my first several outings involved a lot of me being shifted around by the coaches into what seemed like unnatural positions. Stretch this way, tilt that way, head up, arm higher, legs straight and braced against the foothold, hips to the gunwale.
We paddled for a few minutes, and then rested, drank some water (hydrate since we are athletes), and listened to John discuss the stroke in more detail or extol the virtues of the sport of dragon racing. The rest stops gave me the chance to look at the shoreline and water fowl and try to figure out where we were in relationship to terrestrial landmarks.
The good news is that I survived about an hour on the water. And the next day I was thrilled to find I was stiff through my abs, and not my arms, which was a sign I was doing something right. So I committed to another week, and started thinking about building out my dragon boating wardrobe. A sport can’t be all bad if it requires a new wardrobe.