Dragon Boat Racing

Photos and captions by Alyson Wong

A brightly colored gold, red and green dragon head decorates the front of a California Dragon Boat Association dragon boat. The paddled watercraft activity originated more than 2,000 years ago in China. Legend says that its origin traces back to the poet and scholar, Qu Yuan, who protested governmental circumstances of the time by jumping into the water. This prompted local fishermen to beat their oars on the water’s surface and throw zongzi (also known as “joong” or sticky rice dumplings) into the water to deter fish from his body. Years later, dragon boat racing evolved into a popular international athletic sport and activity after its first modern development in Hong Kong. Later, the sport was introduced to communities outside of Asia like Canada 40 years ago and the Bay Area 25 years ago through cultural exchange. 
The California Dragon Boat Association (CDBA) year-round adult and independent recreational racing teams also include college competitive teams – like Cal, San Jose State and UC Davis – participated in the adult race on Saturday, Sept. 24. Youth teams from local high schools, such as Lincoln (2018 World Championship winners in the Hungary competition), Lowell, Balboa and Galileo raced the following day on Sept. 25.
Racing teams from all over the Bay Area (and, in prior years, from around the world) set up tents on the lawn surrounding Lake Merced to form a makeshift paddler village. The California Dragon Boat Association (CDBA) year-round adult and independent recreational racing teams also include college competitive teams – like Cal, San Jose State and UC Davis – participated in the adult race on Saturday, Sept. 24. Youth teams from local high schools, such as Lincoln (2018 World Championship winners in the Hungary competition), Lowell, Balboa and Galileo raced the following day on Sept. 25. Past racing teams have also included the Los Angeles Pink Dragons breast cancer survivor crew and a sight-impaired team from Portland called Blind Ambition. 
San Francisco’s Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) has been a longtime premier sponsor of the volunteer-operated, non-profit California Dragon Boat Association (CDBA), since 2002. From second to the left to right: event Co-Director Linda Chen, HKETO Public Relations Officer Wing Yan Tong, event Co-Director Jeanie Lee, CDBA Board President Hans Wu and HKETO Public Relations Head Adrian Lo stand in front of the HKETO tent in paddler village. CDBA relies on hundreds of volunteers for race events, festivals and continual year-round management. Lucky/SaveMart also sponsored multiple races this year by providing breakfast and lunch to CDBA’s volunteers over the Sept. 24-25 weekend. 
Teams line up at the marshalling area near the dock and wait to board the dragon boats previous racers just exited for the next heat race. Race organizers will account for the number of paddlers by checking wristbands at this station before members can board their boat. 
Dragon boat paddles like these are traditionally made of wood. Starter paddles are provided by CDBA to youth members at no cost. Those looking to have a more competitive edge may graduate to lighter carbon-fiber paddles of the same shape. 
CDBA provides personal floating devices (PFD) or life vests to youth paddlers at no cost, which is the only other required piece of equipment needed to paddle. Some racers may opt to have their own, like the ones hanging on this clothes rack. 
In an act of camaraderie commonly shown in dragon boat racing, paddlers leaving their boat high-five oncoming racers about to board for the next heat. After racing, paddlers sometimes also swap colorful jerseys with other team paddlers to commemorate their racing experience. Participants join this sport for a variety of reasons, ranging from the desire to get closer to Chinese heritage, be in nature, a love for the water, team bonding, competition, the technical aspect, socialization and good exercise. Dragon boat is “a sport where there’s no superstar. No one person can make the whole [boat] move on their own. And it’s very much about timing.” says Hans Wu. He also shares that “there is a high level of Asian participants [in dragon boat], but you definitely don’t need to be Asian.” He goes on to say that for him dragon boating embodies a lot of the Bay Area’s values “of being very inclusive and accessible and active. Even though it has a cultural origin, it is open to all.” 
The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department installed a new dock in Sept. 2021 that is larger than the prior installation and also complies with American with Disabilities (ADA) standards. 
San Francisco fog familiarly rolls in on what was just seconds ago a sunny Lake Merced. A full dragon boat (originally wooden, and now often carbon fiber) seats 20 paddlers (sitting side by side in pairs) facing forward and will also have a drummer at the head and a steersperson at the tail end of the boat. The first-row paddlers are referred to as the strokes, whose role is to set the stroke pace. The drummer follows their cadence by beating the drum to match the rhythm they set. The second-to-fourth rows, known as the timing box, back up the strokes. The middle four rows often house the larger build paddlers and are familiarly known as the engine room. The back rows of the boat experience the most turbulent water, and newer or more technical paddlers are often stationed there to handle the higher water ripples. 
Golden dragon boat drum. 
The Infinity Dragons and Davis Racing Dragons teams combine in a boat and return to dock after their race heat. 
The Bay Area Dragons (BAD) dragon boat team dock after their race heat. Boat drummers often wear festive hats to boost morale and showcase personality. 
A paddler from the Berkeley Dragon Max team displays a personal dragon boat paddle necklace. 
Dorothy Yeung is the oldest paddler (76) in the SF Dragon Warriors Masters division team (aged 40+). She started the all-women team, Woman Warriors, which evolved into what is today the Dragon Warriors, one of the largest teams in the Bay Area. Dorothy’s sister also helped bring the first set of modern dragon boats to the San Francisco Bay Area. 
Races span 500 meters across Lake Merced, ending at the brightly colored flag finish line. Paddlers will often hit 62-65 strokes per minute and near the finish line will rate up, or increase stroke speed to 80-82 strokes per minute, with the upper limit even sometimes reaching 90-95 strokes, pending ability. 
Boats turn around and make their way back to the dock at the instruction of the chaser, a
small speed boat meant to provide assistance on the water throughout heats.
Organizers aboard the chaser announce the countdown start
of a race, ensure boats stay in their lanes and instruct the boats back to the dock. 
Brandon Saria, a paddler on the dragon boat team, Ripple Effect SF, joined in March of this year. CDBA manages six practice sites in the Bay Area and runs the largest dragon boat youth program in the U.S. where youth membership is free and dragon boats, practice sites and equipment (starter club wooden paddle and life jacket) are made accessible at no cost. Adult annual membership is $160 and is $80 at the collegiate level. 
Masters members of the Berkeley Dragon Max team relax and socialize in between race heats in paddler village. 
SF Dragon Warriors paddlers pose after listening to music and socializing between heats. 
An onlooker waits for the dragon boats to reach the finish line. The CDBA championship race has taken place all across the Bay Area from Lake Merritt in Oakland to Foster City to Treasure Island and is the largest in the US. This is a long awaited in person event since the start of the pandemic that is an effort to rejuvenate community and social connection especially for youth. 
Race results are posted on a time board immediately after each heat. Races span the entire day, starting with qualifiers and then moving onto quarter finals, semifinals and finals, where the top six boats race in their specific category (mixed division, open and masters). 
A rhythmic drum beat signals the swift approach of dragon boats which are also clearly seen from Skyline Boulevard.

The CDBA College Cup race will take place Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022 at Lake Merced, San Francisco. 





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