Paddles up! Giant weekend dragon boat races on Bay
on September 27, 2009
As the towers of the Bay Bridge poked up Saturday above the early morning fog, the Oakland Renegades piled one by one into a wooden boat with red, yellow, and green fish fins painted on the sides, and a dragon’s head guiding them at the prow.
“This is the first real race for the crew,” said Michael O’Meara, the founder of the Renegades. “I went down to the docks and saw everybody off, and it felt like my only child going to their first day of school.”
The team paddled backward away from the dock and then powered their paddles forward, following the other boats to the starting line.
The Renegades, organized just five months ago through a City of Oakland recreational program, were two dozen of the 900 people participating this weekend in the largest competitive dragon boat race in the nation— the two-day Treasure Island-based 2009 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival.
O’Meara has always been interested in sailing, he said, but developed an interest in dragon boating almost a decade ago. It’s a sport anyone can join, he said, at any age or skill level.
According to the California Dragon Boat Association, the sport of dragon boating consists of twenty paddlers, a drummer, and a person who steers the direction of the boat to the finish line. Speed, synchronization, and endurance are key. It’s one of the earliest forms of boat racing in the world, and is said to have begun in southern China. The legend of its origins dates back over 2,000 years. It is believed that Qu Yuan, a scholar and advisor to the emperor of the Chu Kingdom, jumped into the Mei Lo River, as an act of desperation and protest against his corrupt government. To save Yuan, local fisherman raced out the waters paddling to drumbeats and throwing rice dumplings wrapped in lotus leaves to distract the fish from eating Yuan. The sport evolved from people re-enacting the legend.
Dragon boating is the fastest growing team water sport in the world, the state dragon boat association maintains, popular in Asia, Australia, Canada, and Europe. The Renegades are adding their own diversity to the event this weekend, especially since most of the team’s members had never actually raced a dragon boat before their first Saturday heat.
Anthony Byers, 49, a security expert from Oakland, said Saturday that he knew nothing about dragon boating before joining the Oakland team. He and his wife enjoy being outdoors and were looking for a weekend diversion, he said, when his wife did some research on the Lake Merritt website and came up with the dragon boating idea. “I said . . .well . . .O.K.,” he said.
Byers said most teams are very competitive, with specific standards for height and weight, but that the Renegades welcomed everyone in the community. “It’s a real enjoyment and it’s fun,” he said. “And the beautiful thing about it — it’s a workout.”
Karen Lambeti, 64, of Oakland, said she was overwhelmed by how welcoming the team was. She teaches English at Miramonte High School, and was so impressed that she encouraged another teacher to join.
Unlike Byers, Lambeti was familiar with dragon boating. While visiting her son in Oregon, she said, she learned that her son’s mother-in law was part of an all-women’s cancer survivor dragon boating team. She went to one of the women’s team’s races and was intrigued, Lambeti said. Then last spring, at a Pilates class,she heard a woman talking about the Renegades. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s what Anita was doing!’ So I ran to the lake, right after class, and joined that day,” she said.
“At my age, why not?” she added. Her daughter, who lives in Virginia, came to visit, and O’Meara let her practice with the team. “My kids are very impressed,” Lambeti said.
Now O’Meara, who wore a fine Captain Hook costume hat, rallied his team for their 8:10 a.m start. The Renegades had been following his lead all morning, first lining up in two rows of ten. The women had tied red bandanas around their heads; one woman had even put on her lipstick. They had marched across the festival grounds, laughing and yelling with excitement.
For the past two months the team had strictly practiced their technique–not relying on their upper body strength, but actually leaning their entire bodies forward as they plunged their paddles into the water.
The boats lined up 500 meters away the finish line. All the members of every team had their heads down and their paddles held still in the water to keep the boats from crossing the starting line before the horn.
“Go Renegades!” a mother shouted from the shore. Christine Aro, 59, who lives in Chico, had traveled to Oakland to watch her daughter, Deedra, race. “When I heard she was doing a dragon boat race I was very excited,” she said.
Deedra, who also had family members from San Jose and Walnut Creek there to cheer her on, drew the biggest Renegades cheering squad. “We are a very close-knit family, so when she told me about the race I called everyone and sent out the flyer,” Aro said.
After the race, Aro was just happy the Renegades had finished. “I’m so proud,” said. “And they are going to be so proud of themselves.”
They placed last in that opening heat–but Lambeti shrugged that off. “We got our butts kicked this morning, ” she said. “But there’s still the afternoon.”
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