Monday, February 2, 2009

A Day on the Blackstone: Pawtucket Dragon Boats

Pawtucket’s Own “Big Perm”

Date: September 6, 2008
Distance: 1000 feet (~305 m)
Location: Blackstone River, Pawtucket, RI
Type: Dragon Boat

While Hannah was more of a whimper than a storm most of the day the finals were still delayed. After a long delay – flags being replaced, boats going sideways and lastly one of the official’s boats stalling – the Dragon Class finals ultimately got underway we stood on the edge of the river watching Living Root Boat 1 run its last race. Our boat jumped out to a quick lead. We were yelling with the extra potential energy the delay had bottled within us.

A guy from one of the teams said: “Wow, look at the g
uys in the yellow boat.”

We kept yelling: “Come on Living Root!” “Let’s go Living Root!” etc.

“Hey, which one’s Living Root?”

“The yellow ones,” I said.

“They’re good.”

Boat 1, indeed, was good. They blew past the two other boats in the race and charged down the 1000-foot course. With a good three or four boat length lead on the other two, approached the flags. Debbie, the “flag-catcher” leaned out from the bow. The race officials had placed another grommet on the top of the flag to keep it from blowing off, again. As we on the sideline held our breath, Debbie required an extra yank on it. She pulled it off and was safely back in position on the bow. Our sideline yells went from encouragement to glee. Boat 1 had dominated their finals.

Living Root 1 with yellow paddles – Finals Race

I’ve been asked several times, what got me into dragon boating and stand on that sideline cheering. Well, a few months ago I had decided on joining a new team sport team (kickball is not exactly the best “work-out” sport). And, a few years before I’d seen an ad for dragon boat racing. While at the time my schedule did not permit me to do this it was always in the back of my head to try it. So three weeks ago I did just that, showing up to a Saturday practice of Living Root.

Dragon boating has everything that kickball does not. The common dragon boat is about 39 feet (11 ½ m) long and holds 20 paddlers, a drummer and an oarsman. For race days they are decorated with open mouth dragonheads at the front and scaly tales on the stern – giving them the feel of Viking longboats. Each of the paddlers sits on a seat that holds two people and paddles exclusively on one side. A race is 500 meters long and involves from 2 to 8 boats. The course is straight like an Olympic canoe/kayak event.
The paddlers follow the rhythm set by the drummer or the oarsman (who is captain of the boat). The paddlers work in unison for maximum power. Each stroke is timed with into the water and out of the water with the paddler in front. Watching a good team (like Living Root’s Boat 1) is an impressive site, some where between the artistry and precision of OSU band’s “Script Ohio” and the athletic prowess of a perfectly executed odd man rush in hockey.

The race in Pawtucket was a bit different. First off, the Blackstone River is dis
gusting. The Blackstone flows from rural Worcester County down through the exurbs of Franklin and Woonsocket to empty into the tidal portion where the race was. It is here that it becomes the gross, polluted reminder of America’s Industrial Age. All sorts of crap including tires and miscellaneous trash float by. But the worst was the dead fish. Something involving the heat of the river and algae causes the river to lack essential oxygen and fish that cannot breathe merely die in the rivers waters.
The other part that made this regatta different is the Taiwanese boats. These boats are considerable larger and harder to steer. They were called “barges” by Scott. The paddles are massive, like swinging a softball bat after practicing with a t-ball model. The race itself was shorter – only 1000 feet (305m). But the massive size of the boats made it as much, if not more effort.

Additionally, the race includes an extra element, the 23rd man. No, not like the 12th man in Buffalo and College Station. Instead there is a 23rd person aboard whose job it is at about 280 meters to reach out from the boat and snag a flag hanging on a buoy in the lane. If they fail to grab the flag, the boat is assessed a 3 second penalty. I would say only 2 in 3 boats grabbed the flag properly each race. There is video of Debbie being off balance where she thought she was going in. One flag grabber actually fell into the pleasant stream that is the Blackstone.

Boat One’s second race – notice the flag snatcher with the yellow vest.

There were about 17 teams involved in the regatta. There
were corporate one off teams, East Greenwich’s Job Corps had a team (they did fantastic with the second fastest time of the day; keep it up guys). Even the Rhode Island Attorney General and the Providence Roller Derby league had teams. Most of these teams were only put together for this one event. The most-clever team had to be “Big Perm.” They wore 70’s styled perm wigs with short shorts and white tube socks with colored bands pulled up to their knees. Additionally, they beat the team of the Attorney General.

Living Root is a full-time team that trains for races year-round. The great thing about my first regatta was I got to enjoy it as both spectator and participant. I was aboard Living Root – Boat 2, which was a lot like Boat 1 just with 5 or so different paddlers. My first race was interesting. We were calm and relaxed in the boat as the other boats tried to tell us and Evan, the oarsman, what to do. After not listening to them, Boat 2 took off like a rocket. Through my peripheral vision, I saw the other two boats drop away. Boat 2 finished with the best qualifying run of the morning at 1:31. For a moment I felt like Percy Howard.
Living Root took a gold and a silver. Woohoo!
Boat One with trophy in hand.
Next Race is in Hartford 9/20:

Then Philly 10/4:

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