Considering the way that the opening of the Hudson River Rowing Association Community Boathouse on the Poughkeepsie waterfront has pumped up local interest in human-powered competitive boating, converging with the fact that Arts Mid-Hudson’s Folk Arts program has been sponsoring an annual Asian Festival at Waryas Park for years now, it seems inevitable that said waterfront would eventually become a host site for the ancient sport of dragon boat racing. This year it happens for the first time, with the Dutchess Dragon Boat Races and Festival absorbing the Asian Festival activities and coinciding with the annual Dutchess County Balloon Festival. It takes place this Saturday, July 5 at the Community Boathouse from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the first race hitting the water at 9:30 a.m.
Dragon boats are long, shallow, open watercraft, their prows and sterns decorated on race days with colorful, detachable dragon heads and tails. Traditionally their hulls have an unusual W-shape in cross-section, since they were originally built from three bundles of teak logs or bamboo poles; but modern craft can also have a flat-bottomed design and are sometimes made of lightweight carbon fiber or plastic resin rather than wood. They are propelled by seated, paired teams of paddlers who stroke to the beat of a drum. The drummer sits in the bow and faces backwards. There are no oarlocks except for the “sweep” or steering oar in the stern. The winning boat is the one whose crew succeeds in pulling a flag from a buoy at the end of the racecourse, whose length is most commonly 500 meters. So accuracy of steering is as important as speed in a dragon boat race, and strict synchrony more crucial than brawn.
These races go back 25 centuries or more, originating in an annual religious festival associated with the Summer Solstice called Duanwu, meaning the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. It was the time of year for planting the summer rice crop in south central China, and if you wanted adequate rainfall for a good crop, you needed to venerate the dragons properly. In that culture, dragons weren’t scary adversaries like in Western lore, but rather beneficent deities associated with bodies of water, clouds, mist and rain. Decorating boats to look like dragons and having teams from different villages race each other were considered pleasing to these supernatural helpers.
Later, during a period in Chinese history characterized by warring city/states at the end of the Zhou Dynasty, the Duanwu festival became associated with the tale of a famous poet and courtier named Qu Yuan, who was exiled by the monarch of the state of Chu on the advice of Qu’s corrupt and jealous rivals. Upon learning of the impending overthrow of his homeland by Qin invaders – due at least in part to his king’s having ignored his advice – Qu despaired and committed suicide by throwing himself into a lake clinging to a big rock. According to legend, the common folk then took their boats out on the lake, beat drums, thrashed the water with paddles and threw triangular packets of sticky rice into the water to keep the fish from eating the revered poet. Even today at a dragon boat festival, participants will throw these zongzi or wrapped rice offerings into the water to honor the poet’s memory along with the guardian dragon spirits.
Nowadays, of course, these events are a combination of serious athletic competition and community-building experience. Hong Kong has hosted the main international dragon boat racing convocation annually since the modern era of the sport began in 1976. “Dragon fever” has since spread around the world, catching on big-time in Canada; Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver are major host cities for competitions. Australia and New Zealand are also keen on the sport. The US hosted its first international race in San Diego in 1983; Portland, Oregon and Philadelphia have become hubs for the sport in more recent decades. And now it’s the mid-Hudson’s turn to climb on board.
Since dragon boat racing is new to our area, this first annual event will be geared toward amateur participants of all ages, rather than seasoned athletes in cutthroat competition. It’s too late as of this writing to organize a team, but if you come out to watch the colorful spectacle, you just might be inspired to get your friends, extended family or co-workers together next year to participate. The boats, paddles, Personal Flotation Devices and professionally trained steerer are supplied by the festival. A fee of $1,000 is charged for each team of 16 paddlers, drummer and alternates, so getting your employer to sponsor your team might be a good idea.
All the money raised, after expenses, will be donated to Arts Mid-Hudson and the Miles of Hope Breast Cancer Foundation. This sport has been associated with “pink” charities since 1996, when the first dragon boat team consisting entirely of breast cancer survivors was organized in Canada. Makes a lot of sense, since paddling is great for toning the pectoral muscles!
On shore, the Asian Cultural Festival will follow the races, featuring live music, Lion Dancers, a Dragon Parade, ping pong, martial arts, calligraphy and origami demonstrations, a Tea Ceremony, drumming, storytelling, food trucks and lots of other activities for all ages. And weather permitting, there will be hot-air balloons soaring overhead as well.
Parking at the Hudson River Rowing Association is free for this event, which is sponsored by Dutchess County Tourism. Traffic will enter from the North Water Street gate entrance and exit past the Marist College Boathouse and Longview Park, through the tunnel, up the hill through the Marist College campus and out the North Gate entrance onto Route 9 across from the Home Depot/Staples Plaza. For more information, visit www.dutchessdragonboat.org.
Dutchess Dragon Boat Races & Asian Cultural Festival, Saturday, July 5, 8 a.m.-3 p.m., free, Hudson River Rowing Association Community Boathouse, 270-272 North Water Street, Poughkeepsie; www.dutchessdragonboat.org.