The long, slender dragon-headed boats seem to glide effortlessly across the harbor. But inside, 20 paddlers powerfully jab their oars into the water to propel them 500 meters to the finish line.
At the head of each boat, a drummer strikes a heavy drum not only to maintain a steady rhythm, but to electrify the paddlers on board. And at the rear, a steerer shouts commands like “Forward!” and “Left! Left!”
On a windier-than-ideal Sunday morning, 15 teams descended on the waterfront promenade at Under Armour’s headquarters for the Baltimore Dragon Boat Club’s 10th annual dragon boat challenge.
Racers from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts met in Baltimore to compete in the 2,500-year-old sport.
“I love the workout and I love the teamwork,” said first-year racer Kirk Brock, 52. He works at Johns Hopkins University and is on the school’s corporate team, The Grateful Bread.
The Baltimore Dragon Boat Club started in 2008 after several members participated in Catholic Charities’ biennial dragon boat fundraiser.
“I didn’t want to do it every two years, I wanted to do it every year,” said Sean Scott, vice president and head coach of the 85-member team. “I did it twice and ended up loving it.”
The first dragon boats were used among fisherman in China. Now, the colorful, 41-foot boats attract athletes from all walks of life — from construction workers, to doctors, to cancer survivors and artists.
The teams were originally scheduled to race Saturday, but strong winds kept their boats out of the water. Sunday morning showed slower winds but near-90 degree heat.
Despite the weather, each team brought their competitive spirit. The teams varied in skill level — from premier teams like Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Dragons who practice five times each week, to corporate teams that practice two to three times weekly.
Each boat fits 20 paddlers, plus a steerer in the back to guide the boat and a drummer in the front to make sure the team keeps a steady paddling pace.
“The number one thing is timing” said Ruthcarol Touhey, 49, who has been racing dragon boats for more than two years. She is on Go Pink! DC, a squad of breast cancer survivors and supporters. The team, along with another local crew — the Annapolis Dragon Boat Club — will compete in Italy at an international dragon boat competition for breast cancer survivor teams in July.
Touhey’s teammate, Lynn Crane-Wexler, is a breast cancer survivor and said she turned to dragon boat racing after her double mastectomy in 2008.
“The stretching helped,” she said. Twenty years ago, Canadian sports medicine physician Dr. Donald C. McKenzie published a study that suggested upper body exercise could be beneficial for women suffering or recovering from breast cancer. Dragon boat racing, a strenuous and repetitive upper body sport, has done just that for women like Crane-Wexler.
“It helps women move beyond surviving to thriving,” said Crane-Wexler.
Katherine Pecka-Maulden, a two-time time breast cancer survivor and one of Go Pink! DC’s founding members, said she turned to racing after cancerous lymphnodes caused her entire arm to swell. But what she appreciates most about dragon boat racing is the support she gets from her teammates, who were there when her cancer returned a year-and-a-half ago.
“The sisterhood is just as important as the sport,” she said. “I didn’t have to go find that support group. It was already there.”
Teamwork and camaraderie are also big parts of dragon racing for other teams.
Edmund Chee, 31, said he joined the Gotham Thunder team this year to meet people. Sunday’s race was his first big competition.
Many of the paddlers on New York-based Team Kaya grew up together.