Water Power

An exotic way to get out on the river

dragon1Photo: Cara Brostrom

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By Susan Jackson

I

‘ve run and driven along the Esplanade, Storrow and Memorial Drives, even taken one of those Charles River cruises on an ill-fated company party, but I’d never been splashed by the River Charles, let alone while sitting in a dragon boat.

Yes. A dragon boat.

“What is a dragon boat?!” That’s a question Jenn Chiu hears a lot when she tells people how she spends her free time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Chiu is an eight-year member of the Dragon Boat Club of Boston (DBCB), and was my coach when I joined the team for practice.

The short answer is that a dragon boat is a long, narrow vessel with a small dragon head and tail, and scales painted on its sides. Dragon-boating is a racing sport in which a crew, typically of around 22 people, work together—some paddling, one steering, and one calling commands—to propel its boat the fastest across distances of 250, 500, or 1,000 meters. It began in Southern China around 2,000 years ago and while seemingly obscure, has a big following worldwide with festivals and races in places from Hong Kong to Australia, to right here in Boston.

The DBCB operates for six months a year from April through October; some members travel to Florida for a stint in the offseason to continue training. But, the 10-year-old club is definitely not only for the intense dragon-boater. “What’s cool about our club is that we’re very laid back. You’re not committed to come three times per week,” says Nancy Wong, the president. In fact, there are beginners at most practices, and the club warmly welcomes them. One thing you do need is a love of the water, because you will get wet. “You have to enjoy being on the water. The Charles is pretty dirty, right?” says Chiu.

Though I prefer the ocean, I do love water, dirty or not. When I arrive at the docks near the back of the Hatch Shell, Emily Chan, the club’s clerk, gets me outfitted with a life vest and paddle. The paddles are single blade, so the next step is deciding which side of the boat I’ll feel most comfortable learning to paddle on. I choose righty, and Chan walks me through the basic motion and explains the calls the drummer (in my case, Jenn) will use to manage my boat. We cut the intro short to join the rest of the club for warm up and stretching next to the river. Most of my learning will be done in real time on the water.

After an active warmup, including lunges, side slides, and arm raises, Chiu splits us up by who paddles on the left or right, or who can handle both sides, then divvies us into boats, and then into pairs. The club has two boats in the water now and one in drydock awaiting repairs. Thankfully, I find myself with the more inexperienced crew instead of on the veteran boat. “When you have all beginners on the boat, you can’t look to the others for cues,” Wong had told me earlier. We cover safety procedures and hop in after the first group has already pushed off from the dock. At the front, Chiu perches in the drummer position, facing the strokes (the people sitting next to each other in the first two seats) and the rest of the paddlers. In the back Lick Pui Lai, the club’s vice president, mans the steerer position.

And we we’re off. Considering it’s a chilly spring evening, the water that splashes me each time my paddle makes an errant move is surprisingly warm. We move at a good clip and quickly get far enough away from the Hatch Shell that I notice all the activity up and down the river. Small sailboats dart near us, and we do some darting ourselves to stay out of the path of an oncoming river boat.

Chiu uses different calls to direct us when to paddle, rest, keep the boat still, and more. We hold our paddles high above our heads in an A-frame position before burying the blades in the water, using our cores, legs, and shoulders to twist and pull the paddles through the river, snapping them out of the water to repeat the process. Chiu tells us it should feel like we’re dragging our paddles through mud or concrete. It is exhausting.\

We pause so she can give us individual instruction and while we’re waiting, we enjoy a fantastic view of the city bathed in dusk. As we drift with a headwind pushing us closer to the Cambridge side, Chiu scurries through the boat, stepping over people and paddles to work her way to each of us. My seatmate needs to stop using a canoe stroke. The guy to the left and in front of me needs to stop rocking his body—and therefore the boat. I need to keep my paddle parallel to the boat as I move it through the water, and concentrate on a snappier recovery.

We begin again and our paddles audibly flop down into the water. Chiu calls for us to quiet them and when we do, for a moment, it is almost silent. “Yeah, that’s it!” her voice rings from front of the boat.

With individual instruction over, it’s time for us to push it. We paddle for roughly three minutes at a time with breaks in between. During an endurance paddle, we go from the Mass. Ave. bridge nearly the entire way back to the Hatch Shell. I’m fatiguing my muscles in a whole new way and I cringe with each sloppy recovery I make. If my paddle lazily smacks the water on my way to take another stroke, it soaks the woman in front of me.

When we return to the Hatch, we’ve paddled for about 37 minutes in total. The other boat arrives shortly after and the mood is collegial. The dragon boaters are students, scientists, electricians, engineers, nurses, IT trainers, and teachers, among others. And, they go out together often.

“It’s a team sport. If you don’t enjoy team sports, it’s not for you,” says Chiu. It’s also a sport suited for any age or body type, she says, as the emphasis is on smooth gliding and technique rather than on pure power.

The DBCB is nonprofit and team dues go towards upkeep of equipment. The first practice is free. Right now the club is preparing for the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival of Boston held on the Charles June 12 and 13. They compete in many races domestically and internationally, but you don’t have to race to join. You just have to be ready to get splashed.

Find more Charles River secrets.

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