BERKELEY — Measuring some 50 feet from head to tail and weighing in at roughly 1,000 pounds, the flying dragons that campus staffer Harold Lee faces down on any given Saturday are fearsome beasts to behold in the heat of battle.
As the Oaklander tells it, the searing intensity of even the most staccato of skirmishes takes such a toll on mind and body that fewer than one in 10 first-time warriors return to the fray a second time.
So it nearly was for Lee himself five years ago when, picking up the gauntlet of a close friend, he donned the requisite life preserver, slathered on a protective coat of sunscreen and first tested his mettle on the watery battlefield of dragon-boat racing.
“That first time out wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Your ego takes a real beating,” says Lee, who has worked for nine years as an IT-support specialist in University Relations.
“It’s hard to get in sync, so you’re banging paddles and splashing water everywhere, you’re gasping for air and your muscles are burning,” he adds.
Despite the frustration, embarrassment and aching limbs, the camaraderie, spirit and support of the other members of the Dragon Flyers team persuaded him to return to Alameda the very next week for a second dose of punishing paddling.
“You’re not suffering alone. You’ve got 20 other teammates in the same boat pulling together and encouraging one another,” he says. “After a couple more practice sessions I was hooked.”
In May, Lee traveled to the Philippines to race with Team Dragons North America in the Boracay International Dragon Boat Festival.
One of the fastest-growing water sports in North America, modern dragon boat racing can be traced back some 2,000 years to the traditional long canoes developed in China.
Modern dragon boats, which are crewed by 20 paddlers seated side-by-side facing the bow, typically race over distances of 200 to 500 meters. A lead paddler sets the stroke tempo and boat speed. A drummer seated in the bow beats out the tempo to the rest of the crew, while a steersperson at the stern uses a long oar to control the boat’s direction.
“Timing is everything in dragon boat racing. Each member of the team has to be paddling at the same speed and pulling to the same degree,” Lee says. “Speed is important and you always want to jump out in front with a quick start, but you also have to pace yourself correctly over the entire distance so you finish strong.”
The San Francisco Treasure Island Dragon Boat Festival, which is organized by the California Dragon Boat Association, has become the largest competition in the western United States. Held over two days in September, the event regularly attracts more than 100 domestic and international teams and up to 50,000 spectators.
Equal parts recreational outdoor activity and competitive team sport, dragon-boat racing ticks all the right boxes for Lee, who also discovered the necessary physical-conditioning regimen came with unexpected benefits.
“I used to throw out my back from time to time, but the core training I started doing really helped build up strength and flexibility in my back,” he says. “You also get a pretty good cardio workout.”
More recently, Lee added a second string to his boating bow when he joined the O Kalani Outrigger Canoe Club in Alameda.
Originating in Polynesia, outrigger canoes are equipped with one or more lateral supports attached to the main hull, which make the smaller, faster canoes suitable for rough ocean waters.
Crewed by up to six paddlers, outrigger teams race in short sprints and over marathon distances.
“It’s much harder than dragon boat racing because we’re racing in rougher conditions and over much longer distances,” Lee says. “If one of your team isn’t pulling as strong, it’s much more difficult to make up the difference and it gets really tough, really quickly.”
Recalling childhood memories of the opening sequence from the 1970s TV show Hawaii-Five-O, Lee dreams of taking on the ultimate outrigger challenge that is the Molokai Hoe. First run in 1952, the grueling 40-mile open-ocean race between the Oahu and Molokai takes up to 10 hours to complete.
“When everyone is in sync and pulling hard, it feels great,” Lee says. “When you catch a wave and get on top, then it feels like you’re flying.”
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