From the first second of stumbling into the smelly room to grab oars and life jackets with other confused newbies to the moment I put a medal around my neck, the Jacksonville Dragon Boat event was an unforgettable adventure.
It’s not exactly a Viking thing.
Let’s start by explaining how the races work – beginning with the boats. This sport is a tradition that goes back more than 400 years (if I remember the announcer correctly) and began in China. When I heard of the event I thought of the TV Show The Vikings, but that’s probably because the thought of being a shield-wielding hero in a battle-ready boat sounded thrilling. These boats are more like giant canoes and hold 20 people, 10 on each side. Unlike in crew or rowing, the paddlers have shorter oars. On one end, a drummer sits and keeps the pace, and on the other a steersman guides the boat.
My Crash Course to be Part of the Competition
To be eligible to compete for my team, I was required to attend one practice. The appeal of this event was simple: learning something totally new for free (via my work) with a low commitment (1 practice and a 1 day festival), a possibility of winning, and access to 2 group workouts. I was sold. And in one of those few instances where the pitch actually hits the mark, this activity was everything and more.
I was two minutes late to the Thursday practice, but they still let me participate. When I got to the Jacksonville Dragon Boat Club Marina on Beach to practice, I snuck behind someone who looked water-sporty and followed them to the room where practicers were gathering. Others looked bewildered, which was a good sign (I wasn’t alone in my total lack of experience). I panicked a teeny bit until I saw two people wearing Web.com tees and confirmed that I was in the right place.
Johnson and Johnson employees piled in the small room too, which was slightly intimidating considering the work emails that alerted us they would be our biggest competition. Later I would find out those teams practiced 10+ times before showing up to leave us in their mini wake. Day of the festival, I would also be impressed by their decked out, thematic tent, large forces (there were a lot of them) and enormous sandwiches piled on tables to fuel the athletes.
Nathan, our steersman, kindly barked us toward the boat and guided us to begin paddling into the breach, then slowly began introducing us the lingo. He said something about oars being up or ready, power of ten, hold the boat and finish. These commands had to be learned quickly as we tried to digest each along with the accompanying motions. It was a gorgeous evening on the water and I took a moment to breath in the swampy land, tall leaning grass and planes of water surrounding us. Then it was GO, GO, GO!
In an exhilarating feat of never before used strength, I attempted to learn how to paddle properly – trying to conceptualize the role and motion involved in the race. Unfortunately my years of canoeing didn’t pay off. One of the other challenges was accepting that the possibility of capsizing (which I am fine with in a tiny canoe) was out of my control. The weight distribution wasn’t exactly ideal and I never go really used to the fact that in all races the boat felt unsteady.
An hour later, I left the boat soaked, scintillated and psyched for Saturday.
Once a year, Metropolitan Park Marina becomes the background for an event that is unlike any team sport you have ever attended or competed in. This challenging, inspiring, sweat-breaking event is known as the Dragon Boat Festival. It is a visually, physically and mentally compelling day where teams made up of Jacksonville residents who are a mix of employees from local corporations, competitive athletes, breast cancer survivors and general lovers of watersports compete. Families, friends and festively dressed drummers (more on that in a minute) gather in a smattering of team tents to donn matching shirts and gear up for a day at the races.
In the bright morning hours of the festival morn I showed up – on time and ready for a day of three challenging races. I could give you the play by play of the day of races and what is was like with each stretch of water, but you should really experience it yourself.
The races are intense, grueling and short sprints that can end in under a minute. My team from Web.com competed in the 250 meter race. I’ve heard that some practiced teams compete in 500 meter races, which is hard to imagine considering that my arms still hurt from three days ago.
I saved two of the best details for last. First, every boat has a drummer who dressed to the nines in a themed costume then pounds and sets the pace, which keeps everyone in sync. Our drummer for the first 2 races was a spider’s web for web.com. Our second race had a saucy pirate femme fatale who yelled in my face (as 2 Right) and propelled my to paddle harder than I knew I could. I spotted a mermaid dragon creature, and other fun drummers that led the competition.
What are You Capable of?
The final element that makes this event and this sport unparalleled is the breast cancer survivors that unite, compete and perform as a true force to be reckoned with. The Mammoglams team paddled fiercely and represented one of the many groups of women across the country who have joined the ranks of dragon boat racers. The reality of their struggle, persistence and commitment to looking ahead was heartbreaking and stunning. I’m certain there is more to learn about how each of these cancer survivors came to be involved in this sport, but just seeing these women step up was powerful. They showed up in ways that show how they are both ordinary and conquerors at the same time. This legacy is a gift they shared with the rest of us who got in boats too and fought against the current on Saturday.
These women are involved in a ceremony during the day where there is speaking, singing and carnations tossed into the river. It was brave and beautiful. I thought of other survivors who have faced grave battles of their own, and took a moment to breathe in the unifying truth that we are all surviving, pressing on and LIVING.
We are alive. We are not drowning. We have strength to paddle, to paddle together.
On Monday morning, as I went to pick up my medal I asked our steersman where I could attend another practice. I let him know I didn’t want to wait til next year.