I pass them on the river frequently — long, narrow craft. their paddles rising and digging in — but I’ve seldom given much thought to dragon boats, even though my 17-year-old son has been paddling them for two seasons. That changed recently when his team asked for volunteers to transport the kids to a race in Olympia. Here was the chance to visit one of my favorite port towns, learn more about the activity that so engaged my son and gain new insights into the next generation of boaters.
The Olympia Dragon Boat Festival takes place annually on the last Saturday in April. About two dozen teams come from all over the Pacific Northwest, each composed of 20 paddlers, plus a person who steers and a caller who sets the pace. Unlike some nautical competitions, teams may bring their own paddles; but they use the boats of the host organization.
I began my information gathering on the drive up to Olympia. But when I asked the three teens in my car why they liked to paddle dragon boats, none of them mentioned an affinity for water or boats.
“It’s the high school sport where you get to travel the farthest,” one of them replied.
“Winning,” said another. “I love paddling like crazy and the feeling of winning a race.”
The third noted opportunities to “chill with my friends.”
I was also surprised to learn that most high schoolers on the team have no nautical background; and while all had something positive to say about the outdoors, being on the water was not their primary reason for participating. The big attraction, it seemed, was the social component. This aspect of dragon boating was on full display in the team tents after each race, where the main activities were sitting around, eating and talking.
I had assumed that speed would be important to the kids once they got out on the water — but I was wrong. Dragon boats aren’t particularly fast, but that didn’t bother my group. Speed is relative here; all that matters is that they’re beating someone else. (It only takes about a minute and change to run a 250 meter course.)
What was important, as it turned out, was the competition itself. Festival participants displayed high levels of team pride and good sportsmanship. There was much cheering, singing (not embarrassing when done en masse, apparently), and wearing garb in team colors (including sarongs). When team members headed down to the docks and charged down the lanes, I witnessed whooping and genuine joy.
I won’t predict whether dragon boating turns into a life-long passion for these kids, or if it leads to ventures in other types of small craft. But what I can say is that dragon boats provide a good time on the water, which is what we all want, regardless of the craft we use.