By Kristin Schultz
ALPLAUS — It’s time to grab a paddle and hit the river. Another season of Dragon Boat racing has arrived and this year local club Dragons Alive has added a boot camp to encourage fitness and exposure to this millennia-old sport.
The boot camp will run for four Saturdays starting on June 17 and will feature nearly two hours of paddling and racing instruction, fitness training and paddling the Mohawk River. Dragons Alive will provide all the equipment you need and classes are taught by certified coaches.
Dragon boats are 40 feet long, weigh 550 pounds and look more like a canoe than a rowing shell. Up to 20 paddlers power the boat with a steersman in back who steers the craft via a paddle in the water and a drummer in the front of the boat keeping the paddlers on pace.
“I like to know where I’m going,” quipped team member Tracy Prebish. Unlike crew, which rows down a racecourse facing backward, dragon boat racers face forward. The boat is designed to hold two paddlers per seat, with one person using one paddle on the starboard side and another person using one paddle on the port side.
“I like the mystique of the dragon,” said club member and coach Louisa Matthew. Matthew and fellow coach Sheila Platt worked over the winter to earn their level-two coaching certification for coaching competitive teams.
Like an Alberta Clipper, Dragon Boat racing is making its way south from Canada. Our neighbor to the north is home to thousands of clubs, and races draw crowds numbering upward of 5,000 spectators.
Dragons Alive operates from the marina at Alplaus, and at its first meeting members chatted cordially and warmed up. A group of newcomers ran through a tutorial on the basics of paddling.
“We all get along and really like each other,” said Platt.
Matthew addressed the club and spoke about the goals for the year, including gaining membership and committing to being healthy and fit throughout the year. Then she paired people off and assigned them seat positions in the boat.
Paddlers climbed into their assigned seats. Matthew took her post in the seat on the bow and the boat pushed off for its first trek of the season.
The paddlers in the front set the pace. The middle of the boat is reserved for the more powerful paddlers and in the back are the fastest paddlers.
To move the boat, team members hold the paddle with two hands — there are no riggers — one hand close to the blade and the other on the top. The paddles go in perpendicular to the water, then swept front to back.
Kara Doyle of Schenectady is the Dragons Alive steersman.
“I also watch for traffic on the water,” Doyle said. “It’s hard to paddle when it’s windy or there’s a strong current, but the Mohawk is a pretty easy river.”
The members of Dragons Alive wear life jackets as a rule and as cool as the dragon head is, both it and the drum generally stay behind in the boat house during practice.
Races can vary in length from a short 200-meter dash to an endurance-testing 2 kilometers. Dragons Alive has been competing mainly at the 200-meter distance but hopes to make a good showing in the 500-meter races.
Dragons Alive is part of the Eastern Regional Dragon Boat Association, which has clubs from Virginia to Maine. In their two years competing, the club has traveled as far as Hartford, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Burlington, Vermont.
Anyone 18 or older can join Dragons Alive.
“I tried it once and was hooked,” said Doyle.
For more information about Dragons Alive or their bootcamp, visit dragonsalive.org.