Carving it up on the Thames   5 Jul 2005

Thames Dragon Boat club

Drums beat in the distance. The water starts to ripple, then splashes out in a typhoon on a normally still reservoir as 132 athletes race towards one goal.

The goal in sight, yelling starts, breath and groans match time to the competitors paddling as they battle against the elements and each other.

No other local sport has this many contenders racing simultaneously. When it’s over, they turn around and do it again. 200m . . . 500m . . . 1km . . . this is not your daddy’s rowboat. This is dragon boat racing – and the Thames dragon boat club is calling you.

Dragon boat racing might sound like a Mythological Chinese water torture, but in actuality it’s a sport in a 12m boat, powered by up to 20 paddlers, stroking to the beat of a drummer, guided by a helmsman with a vibrant dragon’s head and tail.

No one is sure how it started, but newly appointed Titans 2005 season team captain Peter Li, of the Thames Dragons, tells one popular version.

"Over 2000 years ago a poet/statesman named Qu Yuan lived in the kingdom of Chu. The people dearly loved him for his sense of righteousness, intelligence and talent. The corrupt politicians resented him for these qualities and had the Emperor banish him.

"For years Qu Yuan wandered the countryside composing poems for the people. Saddened over their growing hardships caused by the Government, Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River in a final protest. Local fisherman who witnessed this desperate act, dashed to their fishing boats in an attempt to rescue him. They failed to reach him in time to save his life, but saved his body from the hungry fish, by beating the water furiously with their paddles."

Most likely these working boats would have been made of simple wood. As the sport evolved, the colorful, fierce-looking head and tails were added. Some believe they ward off evil water spirits, and give the teams an advantage.

The boats themselves have also progressed through the years. Fibreglass and more recently carbon Kevlar join the original wooden vessels. One such carbon Kevlar craft has just joined the Thames fleet.

"It’s not light. It’s still 250 kilos (minimum weight required by the International Dragon Boating Federation). The biggest advantage is that it’s stiffer. A stiffer boat tracks better down the course, it requires less steering, and less steering means a faster boat," Stephen Charters, one of the Thames Dragons’ helms and the helm for the 2004 Great Britain Dragon Boat Racing open team, said about their new acquisition.

Along with Charters, the Thames Dragon Boat club had several other members paddle for the Great Britain Dragon Boat Racing Teams to compete in the 2004 World Championships in Shanghai, China. Richard "Woody" Smith and new Thames member Rod Hart paddled with the Great Britain Open team, Ian "Fossil" Bowers and Roy Bennington, paddled for the UK Men’s Senior team, and Kerryn Scrivin, Michaela Scrivin and Lucy Porteous paddled for the UK Women’s team which took home two silver medals and a gold.

This year Thames paddlers Wai-Fong Yip, Lai Koon, Kerryn Scrivin and Richard Felton will all represent the UK at the World Championships in Germany.

The London Regatta Center at the Royal Albert Dock harbours the Thames Dragon Boat Club as it has for the past five years. A quick ride on the Docklands Light Rail from Canary wharf, and they are pulling their boats onto the water and training to win.

Thames Dragons race three teams, the Taniwhas in the premier division, the Titans in the standard division, and the Amazons, which is their women’s team. Recently joined members and new paddlers are encouraged to race as soon as possible.

Even more so, they are encouraged to take part in the social aspect when they aren’t racing. The social outings of the Thames Dragons make them one of the most popular clubs in the UK.

Thames Dragons’ league teams compete throughout the summer consistently achieving a top three position in the league races and National finals. In addition to the league races, the club will send a team to Prague this month to compete in a dragon boat festival that takes over the city for two days.

Thames Dragons will also have a team in the Trafalgar Great River Race 2005. The change in the name of the race this year is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte. This is a 22 mile race down the Thames, from Richmond to Greenwich on September 17.

Along with racing their own team, the club provides boats, equipment and coaching for corporations and charity teams that want to become part of the action. Employees of Tate and Lyle have been training at the Thames Dragons’ home port for weeks to improve skills and athletic ability to paddle their own dragon boat in the Trafalgar Great River Race.

Landlubber or proficient seaman, the excitement and experience of dragon boat racing is like no other.

The racing, set in a field of more than 100 competitors, yet each boat moves as one entity and the feeling of unity and alliance built within that boat with you is extraordinary. The skin tingles. Everything is still. Six dragons face down a long stretch of water.

Muscles tense in arms, backs, stomachs and legs as paddles go up in a salute to Neptune preparing for the torrent ahead.

On the release, paddles hit the water and the boats jump forward like stallions freed from the gates. Everyone in the boat moves together producing a mass of legs for the beast that flies on top of the water. Hear the drums? Answer the call.

• For more information on the Thames dragon boat club visit www.thamesdragons.co.uk, email [email protected] or call Florence Egasse on 07768 908 637 or Peter Li on 07981 422 149.

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