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Camaraderie and paddling

Olympia’s sixth annual Dragon Boat Festival

Phil Chang of the Washington Dragon Boat Association says it’s harder than it looks. Photo courtesy Washington Dragon Boat Association

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Imagine if you will that your boss has decreed that the office is going to mount its own dragon boat racing team. You'll be expected to paddle in sync with 19 coworkers, staying in rhythm with the lead paddlers and a drummer while you propel the boat 250 meters.

For some of you reading this, that might be exactly what you'll be doing Saturday at Olympia's sixth annual Dragon Boat Festival.

"It's a great way to build community," says Phil Chang of the Washington Dragon Boat Association, which puts on the festival along with Saint Martin's University. "If you're working at, say, an insurance company and your team was made up of employees from the insurance company, you build camaraderie in the group."

For the rest of you, though, the festival offers a chance to watch the races, see a traditional lion dance and listen to music - and, perhaps, feel lucky that you aren't out there paddling along with such inexperienced community teams as the ones from the City of Olympia and the City of Tumwater.

The sport, which is believed to date back 2,500 years and is part of a Chinese summer festival, requires a lot of physical power, Chang says. "You can be a marathon runner and be in great shape aerobically, but it's different when you're paddling," he says. "Paddling in a sprint is a lot harder."

The colorful boats are similar to canoes but with heads and tails attached in celebration of the Chinese affection for dragons, once believed to control the water. A drummer and two lead paddlers, called strokers, set the pace for each boat.

"I remember when I first started we would practice 25 strokes and stop, and eventually you get up to 50 strokes and stop. You need to do 70 to 90 strokes to go 250 meters," Chang says

But the physical effort is not the only challenge. Even more difficult is staying in sync. "Without training, you have people going at all different paces," he says.

Competitive teams practice weekly year round. "In Seattle, we were practicing this winter in the snow even," Chang says. "The community teams might have raced last year, but they haven't been on a boat again since. They get two practices on the water before the race.

"We coached maybe a dozen or 14 teams who had never practiced before," he says. "We try to get them to the point where they can be halfway decent in making it through the race."

The sport can be frustrating to newcomers, he says. Perhaps that's one reason the association invites would-be paddlers to attend three practices free.

"For an event like this, it's fun for new people because they are with a group of people they know," Chang says. "But normally when we get new paddlers, it can be more than they expect, because it is pretty strenuous.

"It's harder than it looks."

Try dragon boating

The Washington Dragon Boat Association invites would-be paddlers to attend practice with them at 1 p.m. Sundays at Swantown Marina in Olympia and 3:30 p.m. Sundays next to the Foss Waterway Seaport, 750 Dock St., Tacoma. The first three practices are free. 253-272-7087 or 253-565-3756 or

Sixth Annual Dragon Boat Festival

Saturday, April 30, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., free, Port Plaza, Olympia
360.438.4598 or

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