The steady “boom, boom” drumbeat can be heard while crossing the Spa Creek Bridge. The sound is coming from the Annapolis Dragon Boat Club as its paddlers practice staying in rhythm.
The club, originally organized to help breast cancer survivors, has over the years become much more to its members.
On Saturday, the club of nearly 100 members will celebrate the beginning of its new season in a ceremony at the Pier 4 Marina in Eastport. Expected to attend are Dragon Boat Club founder Mike Ashford, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and state Sen. Sarah Elfreth.
“Dragon Boat racing is an ancient Chinese tradition, so holding true to its roots we’ll paint eyes on the front of boats in the morning to culminate the start to our season,” said Jonni Adrian-Krafft, chairwoman of Annapolis Dragon Boat Club, and a member since 2012.
The history of dragon boat racing dates to between 400 BC and 200 BC, originatingamong fishing communities along the Yangtze River in south-central China. The practice was initially a folk ritual designed to encourage rainfall and celebrate the start of the summer rice planting season. The 40-foot boats are crewed by 20 paddlers plus one larger paddler who steers in the back and a drummer on the front who keeps everyone on rhythm.
The club in Annapolis was started in 2010 when Ashford, a breast cancer survivor, was looking for something he could do to help with recovery. He spoke with Adrian-Krafft, an Annapolis native and longtime friend of Ashford, who agreed starting a team was a good idea.
“I just suggested it because I had heard it was good for survivors because it helped with lymphedema [swelling in the arms or legs] and a lot of other things, and he started raising money to start a club shortly afterward,” Adrian-Krafft said. “I didn’t join the club until a couple years later, but he got a group of guys to invest, and they got their first boat right away.”
The club’s original wood boat sank, Kraft said, but the group now has two and is waiting on a third.
“We were totally geared toward breast cancer survivors at first but when we started to advertise at hospitals about what we were doing our numbers began to grow,” Adrian-Krafft said. “Now ... it’s about half and half breast cancer survivors and members who support our cause.”
Adrian-Krafft is also a survivor. She is now 26 years removed from her bout with stage four breast cancer and one of many sources of inspiration on the team.
Adrian-Krafft serves as one of the drummers, also known as the “pulse” of the team, keeping everyone on time as they paddle in tandem. She’s responsible for those rhythmic booms echoing across the Annapolis waterways.
Paddling a dragon boat is no easy feat. It takes dexterity and stamina to compete in any of the primary distances that they race.
Earlier this month, on a 200-meter timed run (the shortest race) with the team, , a fit, 34-year-old Capital reporter was left with burning shoulders and a shirt damp from bay water and sweat.
But the effort that’s required doesn’t deter participants like Karen Campbell, who discovered the club recently after moving to Annapolis from the United Kingdom.
“I came to a couple practices and was hooked,” she said. “Coming from Northern Ireland I was looking for something be a part of, and everyone here was so nice it just worked out.”
As the team evolves, so has the makeup of the paddlers. This is the first year the team is training with men and women in the same boats, said Adrian-Krafft.
“It’s been only women, but we will compete with men and women on our boats this year,” she said. “It just makes the whole experience more inclusive. The men have always been on the team helping us on the dock and supporting us when we compete, so it’s great to have them join in completely.”
The club also has begun connecting with other groups in the Annapolis community to expand their reach and give back. One of those connections is with Wellness House of Annapolis, a nonprofit that supports cancer survivors.
“We’ve created a connection with the Wellness House,” Adrian-Krafft said. “It’s a place for families and cancer survivors here in Annapolis. We are linking up with them and getting some of their members to come out and share some time with us on the boats.”
When the team isn’t giving back, they’re training to compete year around. They’re out on the water when the weather allows and practicing their paddling technique at an indoor pool during the colder months.
The team competes up and down the East Coast. About half the team returned from New Zealand last month after competing in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Dragon Boat Festival. The festival occurs every three or four years.
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Their next scheduled event is in Washington D.C., later this month.
“It started off as a way to give agency back to survivors but now we want everyone to feel what it’s like on the water. Our club wants to share the fun with everyone,” Adrian-Krafft said.