Off to the Races

From my bench in the middle of the boat I was getting to know some of my fellow dragons. David taught me how to avoid hyperventilating and recounted the history of dragon boating. I won’t attempt to retell that history here, but it reminded me of the Iliad.

Simon talked up the upcoming Sprints race and encouraged me to participate. I also met Nancy, who coordinates attendance at practices, and Brett, one of the steerspeople who admired my A’s Spring Training 2001 cap. But there were still a lot of people to sort in my mind.

Teams often divide themselves into pairs of bench mates. Bench mates are optimally similar in size and build. This phenomenon did not help me. It took most of the year for me to tell the difference between Nancy and Linda and Marcella and Lori. It didn’t help that there were two Lori’s (although one is a Laurie) and three Amys.

It helped that many team members got coffee at the Peet’s near our dock after practice and visit for awhile at the tables outside. I joined in primarily because I am a huge Peet’s fan (despite the fact I don’t drink coffee), and I figured the more time I spent with these people the better my chance of putting names to faces.

Between Simon and David on the boat and the coffee drinkers, I was persuaded to join the Sprints team. A big selling point is that the Sprint races are only 250 meters, half the length of a regular race. It helped that the Sprints were being held in Alameda out at the old Seaplane Lagoon, only a couple of miles from home. It didn’t help that we were suppose to show up by 7 am.

I was ill-prepared for race day, which bares a lot of similarities to camping – an activity I avoid at all costs. I understood that a camp chair was required. Since I’m very fair skinned, I found one on Amazon with its own canopy. Then there was a contribution to the potluck lunch. This is tricky because I’m gluten free, but at least food is within my comfort zone.

Prepping boats with heads and tails for race day

My big faux pas turned out to be in the area of wardrobe. Dragon boat teams wear team jerseys to race. But when I started with the team, the Alameda DragonFlyers were in the midst of a rebranding effort. That meant they weren’t ordering anymore of the old jerseys, and the new jerseys were a year off.

The default was to wear a plain black jersey. But I didn’t get that memo. I showed up to race day at 7 am in a charming pink jersey and blue tights. Linda was coordinating the race, and she was not amused.

My major accomplishment for the day was that I didn’t fall out of the boat, I coped with the porta-potties and I didn’t get sunburned. The race-day adrenaline resulted in a frenzy of paddling and splashing like I had never seen before. The team actually won second place in the Rec C division.

By the end of the day I was tired, salt-encrusted and longing for the comforts of indoor plumbing. On the upside, apparently my participation didn’t particularly hold back the team. Maybe I would be up for the Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival coming up in the Fall.

The Big Girl Boat

Dragon boat season gets underway in each year in March. Once Daylight Saving Time kicks in, evening practices are back on the schedule – even if Saturday mornings are colder.

Returning to practice in March, I immediately realized my six weeks or so of practices in the Fall did not translate into muscle memory come the Spring. So I returned to the novice boat on Thursday evenings. The novice boats were once again coached by Coach John, who mixed technique and encouragement with inspiration.

During these evening practices I had yet another revelation. My paddling wardrobe consisted of my old running gear, some of which was older than some of the new recruits. So I decided it was time to invest in new, coordinated paddling attire. I spent much more than I like to admit at Athleta in Emeryville, but my orange and purple palette was coordinated and all manufactured in the current century.

After a few weeks of Thursday practices, I switched over to the regular Saturday morning practice. In addition to John, we had two primary coaches: Lisa Marie and Sue. And sometimes Linda would pitch in. Most Saturdays we can muster two boats for a practice – a dragon boat needs a minimum of 12 people.

As a newbie I was generally put on Lisa Marie’s boat. She’s the ‘tough coach’, as I quickly learned. If you don’t believe me, here’s what she posted on Facebook recently:

While I thought my paddling was acceptable on John’s boat, I quickly learned it was not acceptable on Lisa Marie’s boat. She would come back to where I was sitting and manhandle me into all sorts of positions that seemed unnatural.

In the coming weeks, with her hovering over me while adjusting my stroke, my relationship with her evolved into my most intimate relationship with a woman – aside from the woman at the security checkpoint at the Frankfurt airport.

While dragon boat paddling looks simple enough from afar, it can take years to master the stroke. And it’s not only about your stroke: to be effective you have to be in sync with the other 19 paddlers. But in my early days I felt I was being singled out for abuse. I resented it most when Lisa Marie would call out for me to pull out for ten strokes. My thinking was I just needed enough time to figure this stroking thing out. I’m a smart girl after all.

Rotate, lean forward 5 degrees, foot drive, square shoulders, reach, power, timing, head up, inside elbow up, bury the blade, breathe – but don’t over breathe, watch the stroker… it was a lot to take in.

In retrospect I realize paddling is like speech therapy. I was in speech therapy for years as a kid because I pronounced my ‘r’s as ‘w’s, which would be find if I lived in Boston, but I didn’t. Anyway, after about three years of drills and exercises, it finally all fell into place. I was just going to have to give it time.