How to paddle your dragon — with teamwork

Sarah Roberts, For The Daily Gazette , 7/13/2014

In preparation for the Capitol Region’s first-ever dragon boat festival, novice paddlers gathered down by the river at Mohawk Valley Marine recently to try one of the fastest-growing water sports in the country.

The festival will be hosted by Dragons Alive, a dragon boating club that has been active in Alplaus since 2012. The festival, which will be held at Mohawk Valley Marine on Saturday, will feature dragon boat races, live entertainment, food and local craft vendors. To enter a boat in the festival, a team needs a $2,000 entry fee and at least 18 members.

“Once people try it for the first time, they really get hooked,” said Louisa Matthew, vice president of Dragons Alive and coordinator of the upcoming festival.

A dragon boat team consists of 18 to 20 synchronized paddlers, a steersperson at the stern and a drummer at the bow. Though the sport has a history that began more than 2,000 years ago in China, dragon boating has only recently gained popularity in North America.

Dragon boats are 40 feet long and weigh 600 pounds when empty. They are traditionally painted with scales along the sides, a large wooden dragon head on the front and a tail on the back, and each boat is decorated a little differently from the next. The traditional boats at the festival will be provided by 22 Dragons, a club from Montreal.

With the festival, Dragons Alive hopes to create a fun and wholesome event while spreading a love of dragon boating to the community. Matthew said other communities like Burlington, Vermont, host large festivals each year that draw as many as 80 teams to race and donate a majority of their profits to breast cancer awareness campaigns.

In the spirit of building a strong community, most dragon boat festivals donate a majority of the funds they raise to a charity. Dragons Alive plans to donate 75 percent of the funds it raises to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

Originally, Dragons Alive was expecting to receive at most six entries for the festival. As of Monday, there were 14 teams signed up to race and Dragons Alive had far surpassed its original fundraising goal.

Of those in attendance at the July 1 demonstration, more than half were members of The Girls in the Dragon Canoe, an all-female entry in the upcoming festival. Team captain Tina Lee said she heard about the festival by word of mouth and immediately sent out a mass email looking to form her own team.

“The women on our team aren’t all from my running group,” Lee said. “There are also ladies from book club and church, so we have a wide range of athletic ability on our team.”

About 40 people attended the July 1 event. Some came in preparation for the festival later in July, while others just wanted to try out a new watersport. All had one thing in common: None had ever paddled a dragon boat before, but they were all excited for the new experience.

After their maiden voyage on the water, The Girls in the Dragon Canoe couldn’t stop chattering and laughing about their first paddling experience.

“Boy was that a ton of fun,” said team member MJ Walters. “It’s great when a group of gals can get together for a good cause.”

Unlike activities like soccer or basketball, where it can be frustrating for a novice to play with practiced athletes, a dragon boat newbie can pick up a paddle for the first time and be working in time with a veteran in minutes.

According to Matthew, synchronization is often valued over power when it comes to paddling. In her dry land demo, Matthew told the group to watch the front-most paddlers, called strokes, to make sure the group kept its paddling in sync.

“It’s tempting to look down and be fascinated by your own paddle,” she said as she instructed the group on the proper technique, “but you have to keep your eyes forward on the strokes. Try to match their pace.”

Matthew said Dragons Alive hopes to foster a growing interest in paddling and other watersports in the area and encourage locals to take advantage of resources like the Mohawk River in the future. With an all-inclusive sport like dragon boating, Matthew said Dragons Alive invites people of all ages, gender and ability to come down by the river and test the waters.

The first Dragon Boat Festival will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Coaches, steerspeople, boats, personal flotation devices and paddles will all be provided by festival organizers.

Dragon boat teams traditionally “dot” or paint the eye of the boat at the beginning of the season to “awaken the dragon.” Dragons Alive will be having its eye-dotting ceremony the night before the festival, at the Waters Edge Lighthouse in Glenville. All are invited to attend.

For more information on entering the festival or setting up a vendor tent, visit

Contact Dragons Alive

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