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A day at the races: the Annual Northern California Dragon Boat Festival

on October 6, 2017

Over 100 teams from around the United States, Canada and China gathered at Lake Merritt in late September for the 22nd Annual Northern California Dragon Boat Festival. An opening ceremony kicked off the weekend along with lion dancing, drumming, a Buddhist blessing and the traditional eye-dotting ceremony which is said to awaken the dragons for the races.  

The ancient practice of dragon boat racing traces its roots back to China more than 2000 years ago. The dragon, which symbolizes the power of water and rainfall in East Asian cultures, decorates the colorful 40-foot boats, which each hold 20 paddlers. A drummer sits at the head of each boat, keeping the rhythm and shouting commands to the paddlers. A sweep stands at the back of the boat and uses an oar to steer.

Each race begins with a painstaking process of precisely lining up six boats at the starting line.  As a horn sounds, the boats take off, with the crews paddling as hard as they can for two or three minutes, or for 500 meters in the most common races.

“It’s just exhilarating, and it’s always an adventure,” says Dragonmax team-member Ray L’Esperance, 82, of Berkeley.

Team Dragonmax, featured in the video, is a local team with over 180 members from the Bay Area ranging in ages from 2 to 82.  Technically the 2-year-old, Albert Dietz,  is not yet a full member but goes for rides on the boat during practices with his grandfather. The club has a history of taking out youngsters. 

Founded by Rodger Garfinkle and Linda Lee in 2002, Dragonmax and was named after their first daughter Maxine, whom they said they were always dragging to races and practices. Now a teenager, Maxine still enjoys racing with her family. “They kind of grew up in the boat and grew up with the camaraderie of our team,” says Lee about her two daughters, Maxine and Ruby.


  1. Laura DeFelice on October 10, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for the article! Do you have any photos that you could share with us for our bulletin board at the boathouse?

    Laura DeFelice
    Boating Program Coordinator
    Lake Merritt Boating Center

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