Enter the Dragon Boat

Just like most dances and songs, the club sport of dragon boating works off of a cadence. As the 22 members of the 16 foot-long wooden boat furiously tread through the water, the caller guides them, repeating “1, 2, 3, 4…” This piece, or so each cadence is called, will help the members get one step closer to a unified speed — one that will hopefully launch them past other dragon boaters at the next race.

Dragon boating originated as a part of religious ceremonies and folk customs (more specifically the Duanwu Festival) in China over 20 centuries ago. Traditionally taking place during the summer, it became a competitive and international sport starting first in Hong Kong in 1976. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese were not the ones to create the name “dragon boat” for their event. Rather, it was the 19th century Europeans who came to the festivals and called the boats such, for they were adorned with decorative dragon heads and tails, the bodies painted in scales. Dragons, which make up one part of the zodiac, are traditionally known to be the rulers of rivers and bodies of water. They are also known to dominate clouds, mists and rains (considered to be part of heaven). Nowadays, dragon boating is an international competitive sport, with races lasting several hundred meters, and teams all over the world exist, from Asia to Europe to the United States.

UC Irvine dragon boating started in 2003 under the Chinese Association as a recreational addition to the club. While the crew still competed in races, it was not until the fall of 2013 that it became an official club sport at UC Irvine. By becoming a club sport, dragon boating has more of a competitive edge to it. Now, they have also joined efforts with other club sports to pass the “Club Sport Spirit Initiative 2014,” which will be an annual fee that starts off at $2 (beginning fall 2014) and increases by 50 cents each academic year for a period of ten years until it reaches the maximum of $7 per quarter. This fee will cap and plateau by the 2024-25 school year.

Many members have different reasons for joining this sport. Ed Zarco, a fourth-year psychology and social behavior major on the team, has been on the dragon boat team since his freshman year. A dedicated member, he also serves as a workout leader for the conditioning that the team does three times a week. Second-year pharmaceutical sciences major Kellie Amano is also into her second year on the team, and wanted something similar to rowing.

“I was walking around the club fair [week one] and I saw them flyering,” Amano said. “I knew I wanted to do a club sport so… I tried out… It’s kind of similar [to rowing] but more fun and less intense.”

President of the club sport Thammasat Tantipinichwong, now a fourth-year chemistry major at UCI, has also been in dragon boat throughout his undergrad career.

With around 45-50 members, the dragon boat team consists of many people who came out to an open practice at one point, and simply found themselves returning regularly. The team, as do all dragon boat teams, has two boats (22 crew members to a boat, which weighs in at around 1750 pounds) and trains year round, competing in one race a quarter. The preparation, dedication and commitment that it takes to get ready for these races, however, is what is perhaps even more challenging and demanding than the already physical and mental demands set.

The bright, windy and gleaming weather of Mother’s Beach makes for a beautiful, yet chilly, practice. Members don life vests and make their way to the boat, where they occupy the 11 rows of seats. Anthony Zhu, fourth-year mechanical engineering major, and caller for the boat, braves the front, standing confidently above his fellow teammates. As the crew kicks off, Zhu calls out the cadence and the team comes to life. It’s as if someone has turned on the power switch to a motorboat — only this boat goes faster than a couple of the motorboats that they tread by. As Zhu counts, members quickly paddle 180 degrees of the 360-circle that Mother’s Beach encompasses. All the while, Zhu individually coaches and critiques teammates on how to improve their technique. There is a smooth, low rhythm that accompanies the boat the entire time. It’s not only soothing — it is somewhat of a motivator for the team. They occasionally shout numbers in the cadence with passion. The cadence acts not only as a guide to each piece (routines, if you will call them), it also acts as a way to motivate members; to synchronize their speed, and to unify them as a team.

When second-year business administration major and dragon boating vice president Jessica Wong takes Zhu’s place, she leads a fast-paced cadence, shouting the count with pride as members fiercely paddle their third round around the huge body of water (more than 10 miles, no doubt), and some hands blister while doing such. The entire time, wind and water are whipping everyone’s faces, inflicting minimal amounts of disturbance. Upon coming to the final 500 meters, the two boats practicing race each other, finishing a two-hour practice with just as much vigor as the start of it.

While the thrill and passion for being on the water may be the reason for joining the team, many also love it for the community.

“We’re side by side [competing and neighboring teams] but this community is awesome,” Tantipinichwong says. “A lot of us paddle together on different teams other than college teams. We help each other and there are quarterly meetings for the community. The community is a lot bigger than just the colleges.”

Wong particularly loves the UCI dragon boating team in particular for its plain “silliness.” The team bonds, knowing when to relax and when to work together to come first in a race.

A common challenge, however, that the team faces is what the president calls “the racing mentality.”

“We talk a lot about it, the racing mentality. After a bad piece [routine], a lot of people sulk and think about it a lot,” Tantipinichwong said. “People didn’t meet their expectations, so in the next piece over it’s still bad. It’s a different mindset that we have to put on where we [have to be tough] and not let the past bug us and move on. We talk a lot about those things. I feel like that’s definitely a struggle that we’ve seen and I’ve seen from years down the line and from race to race. It happens a lot to the younger crews but we always work on it.”

The next dragon boating competition that UC Irvine will be participating in is on April 27 at Mother’s Beach Marina in Long Beach.