Boat racing, dragons and charity

Traffic was jammed near the Philadelphia Museum of Art as hundreds of racers traveled swiftly, and without delay.

Kelly Drive was closed off on Oct. 4 for Philadelphia’s massive International Dragon Boat Festival. The Schuylkill River Banks flooded with life as racers, spectators and plenty of four-legged friends gathered for the 13th annual event.

Races lasted from the sound off at 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and began without delay, even through the early morning rain. Clad in rain jackets, and hiding underneath the rows of tents as far as the eye could see, the crowds came out in masses – prepared to get a little wet.

“If you like dragon boating, you’ll come out even if it’s raining hard,” said Heidi Jackson, a fellow rower that came out to support friends on the Bucks County Blazing Dragons team.

St Joseph’s boathouse marks the starting line for nine teams to begin their heat. When each team races to the finish line 500 meters away and packs 20 racers into a single boat, a drummer keeps the rhythm and helms in the back to steer.

“Everybody gets wet and no one complains about it,” said Dan Smith, a first time racer with the team called Gift of Life Lifesavers. “You have your paddle arm in the water up to the elbow. While you’re rowing you’re moving forward and back which propels the boat forward. The more in-sync you are, the more speed you’ll have.”

Gift of Life Lifesavers, like many of the 152 teams, was sponsored in order to make the festival a possibility. Smith’s team, which was made up of recipients, donors and families of organ donors, received funding from Gift of Life, a charitable organization that raises awareness and offers support for organ donation.

“We’re out here showing what happens when you give the gift of life to a complete stranger, they can do amazing things,” Smith said, recounting life before his heart transplant in 2005 where he could not walk or stand for a long period of time. “You’re not getting an organ and primarily sitting in a chair waiting for the rest of your life to be over.  Most of us are out there seeing what else our organs can do.”

Charity is a common thread that runs through the festival. Every year since Philadelphia’s first event in 2002, proceeds from the Dragon Boat Festival have been donated to Fox Chase Cancer Center. The event has raised more than $1 million in 13 years, according to FCC’s website.

While its tenure in Philadelphia has been short, dragon boat racing has ancient roots in China. Legend has it that Qu Yuan, a poet and adviser to the King in 278 B.C., was exiled from the kingdom for his opinions.

Yuan threw himself into the Milou River as the first recorded suicide as a form of protest. The story goes that local fishermen raced to save Yuan – they set out in the river in their boats, fiercely banging drums and slashing their paddles in the water to keep evil spirits away.

The event was transformed into a festival in China and after hundreds of years, brought to the Western World in 2002 when Philadelphia became the first city in the nation to host its own festival. The sport has since spread to other cities, but Philadelphia’s International Dragon Boat Festival remains the largest celebration in the United States.

The head of a dragon decorated the ornate boats, complete with fangs and menacing eyes. Along its sleek body, rowers paddle furiously in sync in a race to the finish line. Finished off with a tail, the boats are designed to visually represent the traditional Chinese dragon. Most important is the beat of the drum, which metaphorically propels the boat as the heartbeat of the dragon.

“My role is to try and keep rhythm, so every time I hit, [the paddlers] should be hitting the water,” said Mike Rega, drummer for the Qlik Vikings and the man in full out Viking apparel. “It keeps everybody in rhythm and going as fast as we can. It is kind of scary because it feels like you’re going to tip, but exciting. Being in the drummer seat it’s a lot more entertaining [than rowing] because you get to see where everybody else is.”

Halloween costumes get an early October preview at the Dragon Boat Festival, where more racers are costumed than not. Witches, bananas, Vikings and hundreds of other creatures gathered together on the Schuylkill to engage in the friendly competition.

“Today has been absolutely incredible – the turnout, the energy, the love, the competition. It’s totally rockin,’” Kathi Clapham, a double lung transplant recipient and racer for Gift of Life, said. “I’m doing something athletic, which I have never done in my life. I’m racing hard and surrounded by so much love.”

Hard work and energy paid off for the 2014 race winners, Perfect Storm, who took the gold with the fastest time of the event, crossing the finish line in two minutes, 8.70 seconds. They were closely followed by the DCDBC Dead Presidents with a time of 2:08.90, and the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association with a time of 2:09.40.

Brianna Spause can be reached at brianna.spause@temple.edu and on twitter @briannaspause

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