Colorful, ancient boat-racing sport attracts ever-growing number of enthusiasts
It took dragon boats a while to become established in the United States - about 2,300 years.
But now that they are here they are thriving, and DragonSports USA has chosen Lake Oswego to host its fleet of 10 awesome dragon boats.
'It's perfect,' Darrell Hames, president of DragonSports USA, said. 'We looked for six months to find the right place. There's not many places that can accommodate 50-foot boats that are attached to trailers. It is a very unique facility. Now we have room to work on boats 12 months a year. There's also the beautiful (Willamette) river nearby.'
It was thanks to Marla Baker that this dragon boat paradise was found. Three years ago she was driving around the Foothills Drive area when she noticed the space was available. When she contacted property owner Rob Stafford, he was enthusiastic about her idea, and now everyone associated with DragonSports is happy. Baker became the manager of the facility, and it seems she now is either repairing dragon boats or racing them.
The average American sports fan still has no idea what a dragon boat is, but there is a small segment of enthusiasts that is simply wild about the sport. Hames said that dragon boat racing started in China in 300 B.C. Although it is easier to believe in dragon boats if you see one, they can be described as incredibly long, incredibly narrow and having a scary, colorful carved dragon as a masthead. It is sort of a floating fantasy.
'Dragon boats became very popular in Asia,' he said. 'Every community has dragon boats, and they host lots of races every spring and summer.'
While dragon boat races drew crowds of 100,000 (and national TV coverage) in China, dragon boats didn't appear in America until 1976. Dragon boats first came to Portland for the 1986 Rose Festival, and that sparked an interest that has been slowly growing ever since. Portland now hosts one of the three biggest dragon boat races in the United States every September at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which attracts 80 teams from around the world.
DragonSports USA has 300 members who make up 46 teams, and Baker and her husband, Chuck, are constantly keeping the club's 10 crafts in repair because of the challenges of dragon boat racing caused by submerged objects - such as treacherous logs in the river.
In addition, one wrong turn in a boat can send the signal caller flying into the water. When that happens, the 20 rowers in the dragon boat just keep on rowing.
It might seem that the appeal of dragon boats is mystifying, but if you talk to Baker or Hames, it makes you want to run out and climb into a dragon boat.
To Baker, there is no greater thrill than climbing on a precarious seat, beating the living heck out of a drum and screaming at the rowers. She is a member of team of the Firebreathing Blowfish, and it is really 'a pretty hotshot team.'
'This is all about precision and working together as one,' Baker said. 'Timing and precision are much more important than size or strength. The boats are only 2 meters apart, and they're traveling at a speed of 8 to 10 knots. It's sort of like sitting on the hood of a car in traffic. It's a two-minute adrenaline rush.'
Besides the thrill of racing, Baker has found the joy of friendship with her many dragon boat comrades, and practice sessions often end with a gathering in a beer garden.
'The community of dragon boaters is worldwide,' Baker said. 'When you join a team, you make 25 new best friends.'
Now a member of a team called the Castaways, Hames became a dragon boat racing fan in 2004 when his sister, Julie, called to tell him about a new sport she had discovered.
'This first night I got into a dragon boat it was cold and rainy,' Hames said. 'I asked, 'Is this fun?'"
So much fun that Hames is now the president of the nation's leading dragon boat organization.
Dragon boat racing in America can be described as a diverse sport that brings people together. On Hames' team alone two marriages have resulted from people's proximity on dragon boats. However, dragon boat racing also results in incredibly diverse crews: the Piddling Paddlers, who promote prostate cancer awareness; high schoolers; mixed sex; all women; blind people; deaf people; cancer survivors (like Pink Phoenix). There is also the Golden Dragons, a team whose members range in age from 76 to 96.
'They're very good,' Hames said. 'They're a threat to win any race.'
There is one social category of dragon boat paddlers that is especially remarkable.
'There are breast cancer teams where the team members can excel in a sport and form a social network,' Hames said. 'They find other women who have the same anxieties and same fears. There are now 76 breast cancer teams across the country.'
It is obvious that Lake Oswego is lucky to host DragonSports USA, and Hames feels likewise.
'We have everything we need here,' he said. 'We work with a lot of businesses. We have everything we need right here, all of the hardware and equipment. Why drive real far when we have everything we need all here in Lake Oswego?'
For more information about DragonSports USA, visit dragonsports.org.