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September 23, 2009 > A different kind of race

A different kind of race

By David J. Nicolas
Photos By Henry Young

Claro Arzedon, coach of the Milpitas Dragon Boat high school team, stood nimbly on a narrow boat resting on the calm waters of Redwood Creek, adjacent to Bear Island in Redwood City. Eighteen students from Milpitas High School, wearing personal flotation devices, rested their wooden paddles and turned around to face Arzedon who reminded his team that this week's race would be different.

"Your blade work has to be much crisper. Remember we're going to be in San Francisco Bay, which means rough waters. We're dealing with the natural current and the wakes from the chase boat, so we need you guys to be at the top of your game," Arzedon.

Nearly 2,000 paddlers will compete in the 14th annual International San Francisco Dragon Boat Festival September 26-27. Dragon boat racing originated in Southern China and is a quickly growing water sport. Twenty paddlers are seated in pairs along a narrow craft. The length and strength of their strokes are determined by the rhythm of the drummer, who is seated at the front of the 45-foot boat. The steer person is perched in the back and gauges the current, wind and other factors to ensure that the boat remains on course.

For Bay Area native Claro Arazadon, coach of the Milpitas Dragon Boat club, dragon boat racing also gives high school kids a chance to learn leadership and social skills beyond a digital veil.

"Kids have their MySpace and Facebook, but with dragon boating they can actually meet all of their friends," Arzadon said. "They are always interacting, and learning how to help each other on a different level."

In July, the Milpitas Dragon Boat Club beat Dragon Warriors 3, an adult team from San Francisco, and took first place in its division in the Annual Sprint Regatta at Quarry Lakes. Even with high school team's recent success, Arazadon was quick to stress that anything could happen in the water. "It's nerve-racking," he said of being so close to your opponents during a race. "There might be a drummer from another team on your left and one on your right. You need to keep focused."

The dragon boat festival in San Francisco showcases one of the largest dragon boat races in the United States. More than 100 teams from California and around the world will be participating in the competition, which is divided into competitive and recreational, novice and youth divisions.

This year also marks the fifth anniversary since the festival was moved from San Francisco's Lake Merced to Clipper Cove, the area of water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. As more paddlers registered to compete at the festival, the California Dragon Boat Organization (CDBO), a nonprofit group that promotes the growth of the ancient sport, had to find a location that could accommodate the growing number of teams.

"Because of dragon boats' need for calm water, Clipper Cove was one of the sites that seemed the most appropriate because of its tidal conditions," said Festival Director Linda Cheu. "And having the San Francisco skyline in the background as you're racing is also a plus."

Sixty-six teams will participate in the competitive and recreational division, 30 novice teams and 18 high school teams. Novice teams race in three different, six-boat heats (or rounds) for 300 meters. High school, competitive and recreational crews race for 500 meters and have four heats.

Since its breakout from Asia, dragon boat racing has gained a large global following, with also a strong contingency in the Bay Area.

"The sport is great because it's colorful, active and team oriented, and that's why the CDBO has tried to let it grow here," said Festival Race Director Hans Wu. "It embodies a lot of the values of the Bay Area."

Before the race begins, the drummer instructs the crew into its ready position. When the horn blows, the crew concentrates on the beat of the drum which indicates when paddles should be in the water. The first three or four rows in a dragon boat are known as the timing box. These paddlers have the best sense of the drummer's rhythm and must communicate well because their movements dictate what happens in the rest of the boat. The engine room (or the middle of the boat) generates most of the power. These paddlers follow the pace set by the timing box. Some teams put the weakest timed paddlers in the back but other teams place the most technical paddlers in this position to drive the boat forward with a fast current.

Depending on a team's strategy, the drummer's cadence or rhythm varies depending on different factors. In order to maintain a lead, a team may increase the speed of its stroke. If a team's strength is endurance and an ability to finish strong, the team will save its burst of energy until the final stretch.

Seasoned dragon boat racers in the San Francisco festival will complete 500 meters in just over two minutes.

This year's San Francisco festival has seen an increase the number of participants. Although camaraderie has a lot to do with its popularity, Wu has seen that you don't have to be a professional athlete to try dragon boating. "Even if you are not athletic by background, you can gain a basic proficiency pretty quickly," Wu said.

But the social side does have its positive aspects.

"For people who have paddled together for a long time, they just don't like to paddle together and work out together, but they eat and socialize together," Wu said. "That sort of chemistry comes into play with the success of the team."

Unlike other boating competitions, dragon boating is unique in that all crews must use boats sanctioned by the organization putting on the event. There is no team with any real technical equipment advantage. This year, the festival is using wood and fiberglass-based BuK dragon boats from Germany. These boats are brightly painted, have the heads and tails of a dragon and weigh 550 pounds.

This year's festival will showcase many activities for all ages. Kids are invited to Dragon Land where they can have their faces painted, use chopsticks to make dragons and climb a rock wall. There will also be Hip Hop and Hawaiian dance performances and martial arts demonstrations.

The two-day festival is free to the public. For those traveling by BART, a free shuttle will run to and from the event from the Union Square Marriot Hotel. Races begin 8 a.m. on Saturday, September 26.

Dragon Boat Festival
Saturday, September 26 - Sunday, September 27
8 a.m. - 5 p.m. (racing)
10 a.m. - 5 p.m. (festival)
Clipper Cove, Treasure Island
Festival Address: California Avenue & Avenue D, San Francisco
(415) 262-0155

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