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Dragon boats again scaring up funds for charity


Dave Armstrong scans the water for signs of the Chinese dragon-boat racing team he's coaching. It's not near the marina at Lighthouse Point where it should be. Nor is it anywhere in sight along the Northwest Harbor.

He steers the powerboat he uses to give on-the-spot instructions north toward the Inner Harbor. "This team," he says, "is too much about fun and not enough work."

When he overtakes the errant team yards off Pier Six, the boaters don't look as if they're having fun. Puffing and sweating in the late-afternoon haze, they pause as Armstrong slows his boat alongside their canoe. "And what are we doing down here?" he asks.

"We're sightseeing," one woman pants.

Hardly the training regimen Coach Armstrong had in mind for this team or the 30 others he's trying to get into shape for Saturday's dragon-boat races organized by Catholic Charities. But he does not scold the crew. After all, they're novices who've signed up to represent their employer - St. Agnes HealthCare - in the races. While winning would be nice, the event is about much more.

"It's not about strength; it's about teamwork. It's a tremendous expression of teamwork," says Kerri Burch-DeLuca, director of communications for Catholic Charities.

The races also bring attention both to the organizations involved, which pay the charity to have a team, and to an ancient sport that's beginning to catch on in North America.

According to the London-based International Dragon Boat Federation, racing canoes decorated with dragons' heads and tails is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, with millions of participants in more than 30 countries.

A 22-person team comprises 20 paddlers pushing through the water in unison, a steersperson to guide them from the rear, and a drummer to keep them synchronized - and motivated - in the front. Canoe lengths vary; the ones used in the Baltimore event are 48 feet long and 4 feet wide.

Nobody is really sure how or when dragon-boat racing began. The most popular theory puts the date at more than 2,000 years ago, during China's Warring States period (circa 476-221 B.C.). The country then was a handful of feudal states, with the three largest - Chin, Chi and Chu - vying for total control.

By the third century, the main decision for the rulers of the states was whether to establish friendly relations with the powerful Chin, located in the west, or band together to block its consolidation attempts.

Chu Yuan was one of the most trusted advisers to the ruler of Chu, a large state in the central valley of the Yangtze River. However, when he championed the unpopular stance of opposing Chin, the king banished him to a remote southern backwater.

The stigma of being exiled from the court weighed heavily on Chu. He spent the rest of his life roaming the countryside, writing poetry. In 289 B.C., overwhelmed by despair, he wrapped his arms around a large rock and plunged into the Miluo River.

When villagers nearby heard the splash, they rushed out in their boats to rescue Chu. They beat the water with their paddles and banged drums to frighten away the fish and water dragons that would eat him. After it became obvious he wasn't going to surface dead or alive, the villagers tossed rice into the water to feed his spirit.

Decades passed. One day, Chu's ghost appeared before several fishermen and begged them to toss more rice in the water - with an important caveat; it had to be put in silk bags tied up with threads of red, blue, white, yellow and black because water dragons hated those colors and probably would swoosh right past such things in disgust. The fishermen agreed.

The search for Chu and subsequent attempts to feed his spirit evolved into the dragon-boat races that take place today.

During a visit to Hong Kong several years ago, Catholic Charities executive director Hal Smith saw some races and was impressed by their pageantry. He decided that staging such a spectacle in Baltimore would be a terrific way to celebrate the organization's 75th anniversary. The profits made through corporate sponsorships of teams would go toward charitable programs.

So, on Sept. 19, 1998, 35 dragon-boat teams lined up along the Inner Harbor, paddles poised and drummers ready to thump out the beat. They raced four teams at a time in heats throughout the day on a 1,290-foot course across the harbor. The winner, Bell Atlantic, paddled the length in 1 minute, 31 seconds.

Armstrong predicts this year's winner should be able to shave two seconds off that time. The clinical research scientist for the U.S. Navy has been racing dragon boats and coaching teams since 1990. "You need a good sense of humor," he says during a recent practice session. "What we're really trying to do is make sure that everyone has an enjoyable experience and a safe experience."

"It's a blast," says Matt Bowry, co-captain of Legg Mason's racing team. "It's a social event." After practice, the investment banker and his teammates from the capital markets division go out for drinks and dinner - before most of them go back to work.

Kim Bowling, co-captain for Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse's Dragon Slayers, says being on the team has introduced her to co-workers she never knew before. The assistant project manager tried out for the team two years ago and was designated as the steersperson because she was light.

"It's very hard," she says. "If someone tells you it's not, they're lying to you. It is an upper-body workout. And it's grueling."

Kevin Quinn, co-captain of the team sponsored by caulk manufacturer DAP, agrees. "The hard work and effort that go into one race is exhausting," he says in an e-mail. "I never thought rowing a boat could be so challenging. ... I played lacrosse at Loyola College in Baltimore and I can't get rid of that competitive spirit."

Using boats rented by Catholic Charities, the teams began practicing in July. They were encouraged to go out at least six times in the summer. Armstrong, who coached in 1998, was hired again to whip the teams into shape.

"I work with what I'm given," he says during the practice session. "I like to have small people drumming and steering [for good weight distribution]. Steering is the most important job. The drum is to link up the boat. To give a little flair to it. The front right person is the 'stroke' who sets the pace. I try to line up the paddlers for maximum efficiency."

He sidles up to a crew in need of some realignment. "Your paddles have got to go in vertically," he says. "Stay in time."

They strike out again, led by a buff woman who looks as though she could propel the boat single-handedly.

"It's a happy group," he says, "but probably not destined for glory."

The facts

What: Dragon-boat racing to benefit programs of Catholic Charities

When: Saturday. First race starts at 8 a.m.

Where: The Inner Harbor, between the World Trade Center and Rash Field

Admission: Free

Best vantage point: The promenade between the Science Center and Rash Field

Call: 410-625-8489

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