Race Day in Victoria

The first-place Alameda DragonFlyers/Oakland Renegades women‘s team

When you travel with a dragon boat team, a local team serves as your host in camp. They provide canopies, chairs and basic food stuffs. Alas, the didn’t leave us anything gluten free, and being Celiac, that’s a problem for me. But luckily Canada is a very gluten-free-friendly place, so I had already found a GF muffin at the hotel’s grab-and-go.

(In a gluten-free aside, Friday afternoon several of us went to the Empress Hotel for a very pricey high tea. I’m kind of a tea aficionado, so I was willing to splurge even if I couldn’t partake in the cakes and small sandwiches. But to my surprise, they offered an alternative plate of GF goodies.)

In addition to our ADF mixed boat, we partnered with the Oakland Renegades to create a women’s boat. Remember, it was here in Victoria that AFD had won first place in a women’s race once before. We even managed to have one practice with the Renegade women, who practice on the same estuary as we do, before the trip to Victoria.

The race was held in Victoria’s Inner Harbor right in front of the Empress Hotel. It is an active harbor complete with ferries, water taxies and even sea planes. It was also in the center of the City which made it easy to wander around, grab lunch or a cup of tea. And the race hotel was kitty-corner to the Empress, so everything was walkable. And the Harbor is beautiful.

Like always, the first day was qualifying heats. It was an amazingly well-run event. First thing you need to know is that Canada is a hot bed of dragon boat racing. Once I got to Northern Washington, people stopped mistaking my paddle for a rifle, and they all were familiar with the sport.

The race day began with the singing of the Canadian National Anthem. Then the marshalling started. Marshalling can be kind of a chaotic experience, but these Canadians had it down to a science led by a commanding (and loud) gentleman who kept the teams organized, engaged and enthused.

For this event, I drummed for the mixed boat and the team’s other newly-minted drummer drummed for the women’s boat. Our mixed team fared decently. We were at a disadvantage because we had only three men on the team for the qualifying heats on Saturday and only two on Sunday. Men are allowed to make up up to half of a mixed boat for races, but ADF rarely hits that limit. The mixed boat didn’t ultimately medal, but it did move up a division from the last time we raced in Victoria.

On the other hand, the hybrid ‘Renegade DamselFlyers’ boat was doing pretty well. It was a split-roster boat since while neither ADF or Renegades had enough women to make a boat alone, between us we had more than 20 women. So a few paddlers sat out in each race on a rotating basis. At the end of the second day, the women’s boat was set to race in the final for the Diamond, B division. I was rotated out for that last race, but in a way I was lucky because I could enjoy the performance from the shore.

It was nothing short of thrilling to watch our boat pull ahead and win. You will have to excuse my shouts of exhilaration in the video. While winning was beyond exciting, the prospect of collecting another medal was eagerly awaited – at least by me.

Alas, that elation was short-lived. We learned that the teams in the B division races would not receive medals, but were rewarded with a generic luggage tag promoting the sesquicentennial of Canada. In a word, we were disgusted. How could our great accomplishment go unrewarded?

While we were at the hotel bar both celebrating our win and drowning our sorrows over the lack of bling, one team mate showed up with her luggage tag attached to a maple-leaf festooned lanyard around her neck. That seemed like an inspired idea, especially after a few drinks. So while part of our group were out to dinner they procured lanyards for the whole boat, and we each fashioned our own medals.

The next morning while waiting to go to the airport we were able to enjoy an impressive eclipse. But the trip went downhill from there. Most members of both ADF and Renegades were returning on the same flight. There was no plane in sight when we got to the Victoria airport, and it was nearly an hour past our departure time before any appeared.

As a result, none of us made the connecting flight from Seattle, and we all had our own unique adventures getting home. I ended up on a late flight to San Jose where I found my paddle, but no suitcase and took an Uber that got me home to Alameda around midnight.

At home I hung my faux first place medal with my other trophies. As time has passed, I’ve become quite proud of it.

As a footnote, on the second day, the powers that be decided we should sing not only the Canadian anthem, but also the American anthem out of respect for the American participants. Unbeknownst to my team mates, I recently sang the Star Spangled Banner as part of a choir at a Philadelphia Phillies game, so I was comfortable with the intimidating song. They got quite a start when I started belting out the National Anthem. Hint: It’s a lot easier to sing if you sing loudly.

The Away Race

Water taxis that shared the harbor with us on race day in Victoria, BC

Every season, the Alameda DragonFlyers participate in at least one out-of-town race. Most of the time the events are on the West Coast, but every few years they venture farther afield, once going as far at Venice, Italy.

In my first season the team sent a boat to Portland. Since I was still mastering racing at Lake Merritt, the trip to Portland was out of the question in my mind. But in my second season they were going to Victoria, BC.

Victoria had a lot going for it from my point of view: I’ve never been there; I have friends and family in Bellingham, WA who I could visit on my way; and, perhaps most importantly, I had been told when we last raced in Victoria we took first place.

So I signed up. Like all races, the festival was held on a Saturday and Sunday. I arranged to go to Seattle early in the week, stay with friends and then the ferry from Anacortes to Victoria.

The race coordinators arranged a variety of optional activities on Friday for those who arrived early. I signed up for high tea at the Empress Hotel, which came highly recommended but was fairly pricey.

In my corporate days I was a bit of a road warrior. I traveled cross-country on average once a month, and to Europe at least a couple of times a year. As a result, I had my travel routine down pat. But right away I could see that this trip would be different when people started pairing off as roommates.

I have not shared a hotel room since I was 23 years old. My sleep and digestion can get very out of whack when I’m on the road, so I wasn’t going to do the room mate thing with these relative strangers. I would be just fine in my own room.

Then there was the issue of the gear. I’m adept at traveling with a laptop in tow, but not a paddle – not to mention a PFD. I ordered a paddle cover since the TSA considers the paddles to be weapons and require they checked as baggage. While I normally manage a weekend trip with a small carry-on tote, to accommodate the PFD I had to break out the wheelie bag.

For the record, the race organizers do provide paddles and PFDs for racers, but I had become very attached to my paddle and had been warned that the PFDs can be kind of skanky since you pull one from a collective pile for each race.

I also had to accommodate my paddling clothing, including team jersey, paddling shoes (Keen sandals for most of us), and the swim parka I bought after the brush with hypothermia earlier in Spring. And, of course, the newly-completed fish hat for drumming. Suffice it to say I did not look like a seasoned traveler dragging all of this stuff through the airport along with my smallest carry-on tote and my handbag.

The ferry trip from Bellingham/Anacordes was beautiful (see video at top of post), but ended up taking me far out of my way. Anacordes is about an hour from Bellingham and the ferry comes in to Syndey, BC which is about 40 minutes from Victoria.

My Bellingham friends had loaded me up with gluten free food for the trip, requiring yet another bag making me an even more awkward traveler. On the upside, people tended to keep out of my way, I assume on the suspicion that the paddle bag could be holding a rifle.

Now it was off to the races.

Mystery Dragon Boat Sighting

As I mentioned when I started this blog, I got interested in dragon boating in large part because I live on the water. My kitchen looks out over one of the many Alameda marinas which provides a source of entertainment while I’m doing the dishes.

One Sunday morning, while I’m making my tea next to the sink and enjoying the morning off, I see a dragon boat go by. A dragon boat! In my own marina. Outside my window. How could that be? It wasn’t Renegades from Oakland, and it wasn’t Cal’s boat. It was just some mystery dragon boat tooling around the marina.

I couldn’t wait until our next practice to see if I could unravel this mystery. So next Saturday I casually mentioned to coach Sue that I had seen a dragon boat in my neighborhood. Her response was, “Oh, that was us.”

Now I was really confused. It wasn’t my ‘us’. My ‘us’ was making tea in the kitchen.  Sue’s response was so casual, it seemed wrong to follow-up. So I let it go. But later I inquired, who did she mean by us. The answer only solicited more questions. She said something about Mark and Thara, who I had never heard of, having their own boat now.

Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled into a quagmire of dragon boat politics with the discovery of Mark and Thara’s boat. I just wanted to figure out how I could get on that boat at least once so I could paddle by my house.

But my early ambitions to avoid dragon boat drama were slowly evaporating before my eyes. My commitment to remain above the fray of any dragon boat politics was quickly overwhelmed by my burning desire to fid this boat and convince Mark and Thara (whoever they were) to let me come for a paddle.

Little Drummer Girl Part 2

I’m a traditionalist. Maybe it’s all of those years in Catholic school, but I like ritual and tradition. But in the case of drumming, my focus on a particular ritual may have diverted me from the main objective: counting.

In my first racing season I had become enamored of the drummers, I noted they tended to wear strange hats. Our drummer at the time donned a knitted fish hat when she was drumming. I asked her why, and she responded enigmatically, “This is the hat I wear when I drum.” 

As the season went on, I realized many, but not all, of the drummers were wearing strange and often gaudy hats. Someone finally explained to me that it was a tradition, particularly in Asia, for the drummer to wear a distinctive hat so that the spectators on shore could identify the teams in the water. 

I knit, and it wasn’t hard to find the fish hat pattern online. But I thought it might be a breech of dragon boat etiquette to usurp another person’s drumming hat style. What would happen if every drumming decided to wear a fish hat? Anarchy! 

So I started looking for an alternative hat to knit. Since we are the Alameda DragonFlyers, I figured I could adapt a pattern I found for a fly hat, and went about knitting up samples. 

Coach Sue with me in my drumming hat

Meanwhile, on the actual water, coach Sue was putting me through my paces as a drummer-wannabe. To review, drummers don’t set the pace of a race, they follow the strokers who sit in the front row and do set the pace. So, the drummer not only has to keep a steady even with the stroker – although I would let my friends who were coxswains believe I was their equivalent. 

Although I’m rhythmically-challenged, I could follow the stroker if I focused completely. But as I had noted in races last year, a drummer is also an ad hoc coach for the duration of the race. I wanted to be inspirational, but every time I tried to inspire, I lost the beat. 

Despite my lack of rhythm, the team was generally supportive. Most of them admitted they were just happy they didn’t have to get up there. And they must have had some respect for how hard I was trying. I would sit in the car at stop lights trying to beat the dashboard along to the music on Sirius. I would practice counting (1-2-3-4-5, up-up-up-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, keep it strong) as I dozed off at night. 

I even googled dragon boat drumming to watch videos of drummers in action. I doubt many people have put so much effort into mastering dragon boat drumming. 

I was surprised to find a reasonable amount of drummer hating on the internet. Lots of paddlers complained they are just excess weight. In many race venues they are no longer required to actually drum. In a race setting, it’s hard to recognize the beat of your drummer from the others. Paddlers might do better just concentrating on watching the stroker and the feel of the boat. 

But dragon boat rules say each racing boat must have a drummer. However, the drummer doesn’t have to be on your roster, so they can be recruited from other teams or even off the street according to one tale I read.

After several weeks of practicing, coach Sue finally determined I was ready to drum in the CBDA Sprints. I’m not sure coach Lisa Marie would have agreed, but she would have at least given me an E for effort. And our team was still short of drummers. 

While I may not have been an unqualified success on my first outing, I didn’t seem to do any harm – we placed the same as we had placed the year before. And the dragonfly hat was a big hit, although I found the antenna kind of annoying to wear. 

As it would happen, I ran across our former drummer and her fish hat at the sprints. She admired the dragonfly hat, and I mentioned that I had an ambition to make a fish hat, but the pattern seemed intimidating. She said the pattern looked worse that it actually was and that I should try it. 

So with her blessing I started the fish hat the next day.