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Dragons Challenge at Sellwood Riverfront Park

by: David F. Ashton, From the dock at Sellwood Riverfront Park, 33 teams of dragon boat racers vied for both local and regional honors in September.

The sun glinted off forty wet paddles as two more teams of dragon boat racers headed downstream from Sellwood Riverfront Park.

The Rose Festival isn't the only time 22 folks pile into long, narrow boats and stroke the river's water in unison, to the beat of a drum or the call of their coach. On September 10th, 720 aqua-athletes pitted paddles at the park as dragon boat races took place in Inner Southeast Portland.

The event's announcer, James Rinehart, told us that dragon-boating is a grand sport in Canada and Australia. 'There, they build civic festivals around the dragon boat races.'

Missing from the long, narrow dragon boats, we noticed, were - dragons! 'The boats used at Rose Festival are different,' Rinehart said, 'those are larger, heavier, and have the dragon carving on the prow.'

Queued to race

The racers' boats are identical, and are supplied by the event. The paddlers, however, are very different from one another. The young and older, both men and women, make up the paddling teams.

'We are from all over the Portland area,' Said the spokesperson for 'The Castaways' paddling club, Kerry Jeffrey. 'What we mostly have in common is that we like dragon racing. Most of us met through the club.'

Although a paddling club may have as many as fifty members, Jeffrey explained, a paddling team consists of 22 crew members: 20 paddlers (they don't row), a tiller to steer the boat, and a 'caller' who keeps the crew paddling in unison, either with calls or by beating a drum.

Serious fun

Janna Brown, a member of the Wasabi Warriors Paddling Team, explained that riches aren't to be won in dragon boat racing - teams simply race for fun and glory. To help cover expenses, the Wasabi Warriors sell canned nuts bearing their team's name.

Each of the paddling clubs set up their own encampment at the park, lead their crews in stretch and flexibility exercises, and study the race standings.

Race officials embrace technology

We found the race officials at the south end of the park.

'We do our best to accurately stage, time, and record the outcome of each race,' said race director Joel Shilling, looking up from his computer screens. 'The paddling clubs take this very seriously; so do the officials.'

Shilling told us he started dragon racing twelve years ago. 'The Sellwood race is relatively new. This is our second year here; I think we'll be back.'

In addition to the Portland-area paddling clubs' competition, the culmination of a racing series, the Northwest Challenge, was underway. 'During the season,' Shilling explained, 'we hold races in Oregon and Washington. We'll find out who the regional winner is today.'

The portable radios crackled, as water-borne officials radioed that the competitors' boats were in position. At the firing of a starter's pistol, forty paddlers strained against the water to move their boat across the finish line first.

'We have, as our vision,' Shilling told us, 'promoting fitness and friendship through paddle sports. These races give everybody the chance to see how much their fitness has improved over the summer paddling season. It's a fun way to get in shape.'

Want to learn more? Visit their Internet website at: www.groups.yahoo.com/group/DragonSports.USA