DRAGON BOATING takes place rain or shine, which in Seattle is frequently the former. If you’re a committed paddler training for competition, rain is part of the experience. For newcomers easily thwarted by drizzle — what are you doing in Seattle anyway? — a lack of sunny skies might stop you.
Don’t wait. Go once and I bet you will be joyously paddling around Lake Union, declaring boats your new favorite mode of transportation.
Dragon boating is an ancient tradition that originated in China, and the paddlers for the nonprofit Seattle Flying Dragons are out on the water four days a week all year. They have a competitive group and also take newcomers at every practice.
They are a friendly, welcoming bunch who love being out on the water together, because you most certainly are in it together. A full dragon boat holds 20 paddlers, with two per bench, a sweep at the back who steers the boat and a drummer during competitions. The paddlers all stroke together, switching sides throughout.
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I had clear skies on my first go at dragon boating. I got a quick land lesson on paddling: Reach forward with your paddle, put it straight in the water near your front toe, pull back to mid-thigh and lift your paddle out. When you get down the stroke with a long reach, you rely on your core rather than your shoulders, the coaches said.
Paddling seemed easy enough, until we were out on the water. I was seated behind head coach Valerie Robb in the Smoke Dragons — noncompetitive — boat.
We worked on our timing, with Robb yelling to look at the paddlers ahead of you, not at your own paddle. She yelled “reach it out” and coached me to keep my upper arm straight and lifted between strokes to conserve energy.
Once our boat got the timing, Robb had us work on “surge,” which is the feeling of lift under the boat when everyone is doing their strongest strokes at the same time. When we got it, I could feel the boat moving forcefully under us.
We also got a little tour of the west side of Lake Union. Periodically, Robb yelled “let it ride,” and we’d put our paddles down to enjoy the beautiful view in every direction. She pointed out sights like the house from the movie “Sleepless in Seattle,” the Aurora and Interstate 5 bridges, and Gas Works Park. The water was calm and clear. A girl danced on a dock. People waved to us from their houseboats.
But we still had paddling to work on. Robb split the paddlers in half, and had the front and back half switch off 20 strokes at a time. After we each worked on getting our timing together, everyone paddled together again, and we had even more powerful surges. We did mini races against the boat with experienced paddlers, who had twice as many people as us.
Robb also had us slow down the stroke to work on technique, and that’s when I finally started to get stretching out with my upper arm and using my legs to create more power in my stroke. Oh, and I was sweating.
Another great thing about dragon boating is you can drop in any day the club is on the water. The first three practices are free, then it’s $100 for the year. It’s a good way to learn paddling techniques, meet new friends and get a good workout. A lot of paddlers get hooked into competing. You could be next.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.