It’s a Racing Sport

Nancy, the attendance tsarina for Alameda DragonFlyers, is the team’s liaison with would-be paddlers. She told me recently that she has to emphasize that our objective is to race, not just paddle around the estuary.

I must say, if I had connected with the team through Nancy, I would have been deterred by the emphasis on racing. I took up dragon boating because I wanted some exercise, the chance to tool around on the water and to meet new people.

But now I was on a team that races. I had put my toe in the water (well, my paddle) with the Sprints race, now it was time to commit to racing in a dragon boat festival.

DragonFlyers all in a row

The two-day festivals took the pseudo-camping experience of the one-day sprint race to a new level. We had to bring lunch, a contribution to the potluck, and some kind of diversion to keep yourself entertained between races. Since the mornings could be cold, additional layers or even a change of clothes were also advised. Since I’m gluten free, I had to bring additional food. And all of these items had to be packed in from the parking lot!

Dragon boat festivals – never regattas –  start with the first races at 8:00 am. We were advised by the team captains that we needed to arrive before 7:00. So I had to forego an entire weekend of sleeping in! Not only that, I had to rise before the sun, which is something I vowed not to do again after my days of commuting to work were over.

Anyway, I showed up on time, dragging tote bags of food, chair, PFD, paddle etc. The Oakland Dragon Boat Festival was held at Lake Merritt in nearby Oakland. As the crow flies, it is probably closer to my house than the sprints race in Alameda was. But psychologically, I’ve come to think of any trip off the island as a hardship.

Manny and Dick and other seasoned racers had arrived early and staked out a prime camp site under an oak near the marshalling area. I set up my chair and settled in. The rest of the weekend was about going where I was told to go when I was told to go there. And this time I had made sure to wear a generic black jersey.

The first day is all qualifying races, and it’s hard to know where you stand. Actually, under almost any circumstance it’s hard to know how your team is doing from the water. These races are won or lost by tenths of a second.

My family, in the form of my sister, brother-in-law, mother and niece, all came to visit for awhile and see the rare sight of me doing something both athletic and competitive. They were duly impressed.

But what I took took note of in this race was role of the drummers. I didn’t even notice the drummers at the sprints race, given my complete and total focus on staying in the boat. But this time they stood out.

As the name implies, the drummer sits at the front of the boat and bangs a drum in time with the strokers, who sit on the first bench and set the stroke rate. The drummer also calls the stroke rate or shout encouraging words.

As Coach John likes to point out, drummers are strictly ceremonial. They are only used in races. But drummers are required for races. They don’t actually have to be on a team’s roster, so it’s not unusual for team to swap them out.

But that is not to say they aren’t important. I felt I paddled much better with a confident and commanding drummer on the bow. A commanding drummer certainly took the edge off my nerves while sitting at the starting line.

So I survived my first weekend of racing. My family was very impressed, particularly my brother-in-law who famously told his daughters, “Auntie Cassie camps at the Ritz-Carlton.” But I was impressed with the drummers. There seemed to be more and more layers of this dragon boating experience to explore.