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  • 22 Oct 2014

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Dragon riders

Popular sport offers paddlers fun, fitness, friendship


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Darrell Hames, middle, is captain and steersperson for the Castaways dragon boat team, one of a growing number that practice year-round. The swoosh, swoosh of paddles slicing through the water is just part of the Willamette River’s chorus one recent Thursday evening.

It happens to be Thursday, July 3, and the clamor of Portland’s Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival fades quickly as the Castaways glide upriver.

In between the caller’s commands, an eagle cries out from the trees on the back side of Ross Island and everyone stops to listen and try to spot it.

They see a man walking through the foliage on Ross Island and joke about Bigfoot. They wave to other boaters, kayakers and paddle boarders, and take delight in passing under the Tillikum Crossing, which they watched being built from Day One.

“You really get hooked,” says team captain Darrell Hames, 55, a Southeast Portland caterer by day who’s been dragon boating since 2004. “You go out in the evening in the fall and winter, see the lights of the buildings reflecting on the river. The water is glass smooth. It’s magical.”

The Castaways are part of Portland’s burgeoning subculture of dragon-boat paddlers that compete in a race circuit across the United States and Canada every spring and summer and practice year-round, far beyond the Rose Festival season.

What started with one boat from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, coming to the U.S. in 1986 has led to Portland becoming a mecca for dragon boating along the West Coast.

The sport also is popular on the East Coast, in Hawaii, Asia and elsewhere around the globe — anywhere there’s a body of water.

In 1989, the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association organized what’s now the annual Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race, which attracts thousands of paddlers and spectators to the waterfront every June. Up next is the annual Portland Dragon Boat Festival, set for Sept. 6 and 7 at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Now in its 12th year, the festival started with 12 teams and grew to 85 teams from around the world last year. This year, 65 are set to attend, since a big international race is happening the same weekend.

It’s an idyllic lifestyle for thousands of dragon boaters who paddle as much for the social aspect as for the fitness benefits and adrenaline rush from competition.

“I’m probably more of a (dragon boat) addict than anybody else you’ll ever meet,” says Ken Polnicky, 51, an engineer who lives in the West Hills and has been paddling since 2003.

At one time, he says, he calculated that he was spending about 20 hours per week, between practicing, training and coaching for the Paddles of Fury as well as recruiting, fundraising and organizing event logistics.

Like Hood to Coast or Cycle Oregon, dragon boating is a way of life that lives and dies by the strength of the team, paddlers say. “You have to have what you call the eye of the tiger: the desire to improve, get better, work really hard,” Polnicky says. “It’s sort of fun to face those challenges as a group, fail or succeed as a group.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The sun dips low as the Castaways returns to dock after practice on the Willamette River.

Sport grows in Portland

In the past 25 years, Portland’s scene has grown to boast about 54 teams, both womens and mixed (co-ed). More form every year.

The teams belong to one of two nonprofit paddling clubs, DragonSports USA and Wasabi Paddling Club. Both clubs own large fleets of dragon boats (as well as outrigger canoes) that they rent to teams, and support the teams with recruitment, coaching support and other efforts. Some of the outrigger teams race along the Pacific circuit, up to Seattle; this weekend they’ll be at the Gorge Games.

Portland’s dragon boat teams are now in the height of their race season, most practicing about three times per week on the Willamette.

Rose Festival dragon boat teams use the colorful “Kaohsiung” boats, with the decorative Chinese dragon head and tail. Most other Portland teams race without the head and tail in longer and sleeker “Six-Sixteen” fiberglass boats, made in Canada. Paddles are wood or carbon fiber.

If you haven’t seen dragon boating in action, it’s part art, part science. There are seats for 20 paddlers, who face frontward and drive the boat forward by pulling through the water at the same time.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Some dragon boat paddles are a little more ornate than others.
They follow commands of the caller, who stands facing them at the front of the boat, calling out their series (combinations of 20 strokes), setting the pace, letting them know when to rest or change positions, and firing their teammates up.

The other key team position is the steersperson, who keeps the dragon boat on course, controlling it with an oar rigged at the rear of the boat. Races are quick, 500 meters.

Many paddlers compete on two or three teams, cross-training with outriggers — a canoe built for up to eight paddlers that compete in four- to 10-mile races.

The dragon boats competing in the Portland Rose Festival are in a completely separate category, with another element that makes for dramatic flair. Each team has a designated flag catcher, whose job is to capture the flag as they race around a floating buoy in their lane.

Teams cover spectrum

Some of Portland’s dragon boat teams are hard-core competitive; others are less so, but all are a strong social network.

For the scores of people who’ve just moved to Portland, dragon boating is an easy way in: “You have 30 new friends, mini vacations, happy hours, all of a sudden you have this social life with all these new people,” Polnicky says.

The Castaways — a group of engineers, teachers, nurses, accountants, librarians and computer geeks, 20-somethings to retirees — are a mix of both.

Four couples — including Hames, the captain — have met on the boat, married and had children. The beer gardens after practice might’ve have something to do with that.

Competition-wise, they like to call themselves “competitively recreational,” looking to place in their division at each race but never at the expense of training too hard or having too much fun.

At the recent World Beat Dragon Boat Races, held in Salem on June 29, they placed third out of 24 teams in Division 1.

Portland’s dragon boat teams fall along a wide spectrum of social groups and competition levels.

The Portland Fire Dragons will represent the U.S. in Italy in September for the Club Crew World Championships, a prestigious international competition.

There’s an “out and proud” lesbian team (Amazon Dragons), a team of women lawyers (OWLS Dragonflies) and two teams of breast cancer survivors (Pink Phoenix and Wasabi Team SOAR).

Pink Phoenix was the first team of survivors that formed in the country, in the late ‘90s. Now there are about 80 breast cancer survivor teams across the nation.

There are two teams of blind paddlers (Blind Ambition and Wasabi VIP), and a team of developmentally and physically disabled athletes (Wasabi Special Dragons).

There are two teams for paddlers over age 50, the Wasabi Grand Masters Mixed and the Golden Dragons, whose oldest member is 96 and average age is 78.

“We don’t let those little 20- and 30-year-olds intimidate us,” says Bettianne Goetz, 74, of Fairview, who’s been paddling since 1990. “Almost all of the teams we race are younger than us. A lot of them are the ages of our grandchildren.”

The Golden Dragons are competitive, Goetz says, but take pride in enjoying the slower moments, too. They practice early in the morning and just started a moonlight paddle, heading out on the water as night falls once a month to take in the serenity of the full moon.

Youth teams face barriers

There also are a handful of youth teams in high school and college, from public and private schools across the city.

Vernon Lee, 63, of Cedar Hills, started the SunDragons high school dragon boat team in 1998.

As a longtime paddler, he wanted his sons to try out the sport when they got to Sunset High School. So he formed the team, recruited and trained students, and coached them to be competitive at the local, regional, national and international level.

He’s still coaching, as is his 26-year-old son, and in the past three years the SunDragons opened up to include students from high schools across the city.

Despite the popularity, Lee fears the number of youth dragon boat teams is on the decline, and soon there won’t be enough high school teams to compete in their own division in the Rose Festival races.

There were six high school teams this year, half as many as in 2003, when schools such as Cleveland, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin, Grant, Sunset and Beaverton high schools had teams of their own.

by: COURTESY OF TOM KETURI - The SunDragons, a team of high school students from across the metro area, are one of Portlands longest-running teams. Here, the flag-catchers reach for the flags at the Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race.One major barrier to youth teams is the availability of experienced coaches who can commit to staying with their teams through the years, Lee says. Parent time — to manage the team, organize transportation and other logistics, and take on the liability — is another major hurdle.

Lee is doing everything he can to keep promoting dragon boating in the high schools. “I only have them for a window of time; the average is two years,” he says. “I’ve had guys who’ve never played sports become stellar paddler athletes.”

Most paddlers who started in Portland’s earliest days of dragon boating are still active in the scene. Lee is one of the originals, having paddled on an early team in the late 1980s with former Congressman David Wu. It all happened by accident.

Lee, who is Chinese, says he and his cousin had been invited to join a “Chinese team,” so they went down to RiverPlace Marina to check it out.

“There was a Chinese guy; he said ‘Hop on,’” Lee recalls. “We thought, well, he’s Chinese, let’s hop on.”

As it happens, Wu paddled for a different team than the one they were invited to join. “I got on the wrong boat,” Lee says. “More people came, but no Asians.”

Lee and his cousin liked the team so much, however, that they stayed on for several years, raced competitively and later branched off to form other teams. Since then, Lee has been one of the sport’s biggest advocates.

Hames, the Castaways captain, says he hears people all the time say they’d never have the athletic ability to paddle on a dragon boat. He tries to convince them otherwise.

“It’s sort of a misnomer,” he says, that paddling expertise is required. “The power comes from the sync of the stroke, everyone working together.”