Competing in the Mountain States Dragon Boat Festival is so much fun, Danielle Channels couldn’t stop laughing before her team’s first practice. She and fellow members of “Catch me if you can” gathered at Sonny’s Marina Tuesday evening to prepare for Saturday’s main event at Winged Deer Park.
“We’re all fired up and ready to do it,” Channels said on behalf of her teammates just before they strapped on their life jackets and piled into the boat. The crew consists of employees from Mountain States Health Alliance’s corporate billing office and was the top fundraiser last year.
Each team was instructed by one of the six coaches from Dragon Boat East, a club from Halifax, Nova Scotia, that provides all the equipment and instruction for the race. Albert McDonald has been leading teams for about 15 years and says Boone Lake is the perfect place for the 22-passenger flat boats.
“This is just a great venue,” he said. “It’s calm. The lake is protected so we don’t have a lot of wind. I’ve been to festivals all over the world and this is one of the best.”
Each of the 37 teams get two practice sessions broken into groups of three. The coach balances the crew and puts them in the order they’ll ride in the boat, plus talks to them about safety procedures before they actually leave the dock for a 45-minute crash course in dragon boating. Once they’re out on the lake, the teams practice paddling in sync and in time with a drum before taking off in a mock race at the end.
The double practice sessions are a major time commitment for the racers, but McDonald says the preparation is worth the extra competitive edge it adds for Saturday’s festivities. Even if teams like “Catch me if you can” are less concerned with winning and more focused on “getting it together by Saturday,” the chances of making it to the championship heats are still quite high given the mix of experienced and novice paddlers.
“The biggest thing that draws people is the chance to raise money for the hospital, first and foremost, and that’s why they’re here,” McDonald said. “Compared to a golf tournament, everyone is equal in the boat. At most, people have done it once a year, or never done it, so whether you’re the guy in the mail room or a senior manager, everyone gets in the boat and has the same background level of experience and the boat will only go as fast as the sum of the 20 people so it’s the ultimate team challenge.”
Not to mention, it’s a workout on the arms, Channels said of her first dragon boating experience that gave her plenty of jitters last year.
“Oh my gosh it is so much fun,” she said. “It’s teamwork and we just have a ball out here and it gives back.”
Not only do the racers have a good time, but so do the spectators. McDonald says they’re drawn to the all the color, the constant activity and the close races. Onlookers also may identify with the teams made up of businesses and groups within the community.
“They like to see the people banging on the drums and the colorful dragon heads,” McDonald said. “Anytime the gun goes off there’s 60 people involved so it’s kind of neat. There’s a lot going on, not just on the water.”
Opening ceremonies for the Mountain States Dragon Festival will be held at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by the first race at 9:15 and the championship heats beginning at 2:30 p.m. There also will be a children’s area called “dragon land,” plus a health fair, food and art in the park.