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Dragon boat festival builds community, provides entertainment

Members of Blue Water Paddling paddle a dragon boat at Barker’s Island in Superior recently. The team is preparing to race in the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

By Grace Pastoor

Forum News Service

One week before the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, Craig Lincoln is focused on preventing "shades of chaos" from disrupting his team.

"Chaos" could mean anything. An unbalanced boat or paddlers falling slightly out of sync could all spell trouble on race day. Lincoln’s 14 years of dragon-boating have taught him how to head off unrest, however. With the help of a top-secret spreadsheet containing each team member’s weight, Lincoln has configured the 20 paddlers in the long canoe-like boat in a way he feels will ensure team cohesiveness.

"Everyone paddles in a way that fits a certain part of the boat," Lincoln said. "You want certain types of people in certain places."

This year, Lincoln — who coaches Blue Water Paddling’s Team Surge and has helped plan the festival in past years — will bring his team to face off against 82 other outfits. The event, in its 13th year, will raise money for a number of community nonprofits.

History vs. modern day

Dragon-boating is a 2,000-year-old sport based on ancient Chinese mythology, which identifies the dragon as the symbol for water. The races were traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar and were meant to appease the rain gods and help participants avoid bad luck, according to the festival’s website.

The modern-day goal of racing dragon boats is much different, however. Even as the practices slip by and the countdown clock on the festival’s home page ticks down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the race, Lincoln continues to tell his team to focus more on building a community than snagging a trophy.

"I don’t really want to push people into a good result," Lincoln said. "I want them to believe that running a great dragon boat race will be the best experience they can have this summer, and that’s something that will last over a long time and give us long-term results.

"And that’s whether we cross the finish line first or last."

Preparation

Still, at Team Surge’s second-to-last practice before the real thing, the atmosphere in the boat took on a more serious air. Rather than argue about spiders in the boat and joke about taking out stray paddle-boarders, the team worked mostly in silence and reviewed each piece of paddling once it was completed.

The Lake Superior festival can be chaotic and overwhelming, Lincoln said. To succeed in a race, each member of a team has to paddle in near-perfect synchronization while the boat’s steersman shouts commands. Rowers must be prepared to speed up, slow down, lengthen their strokes or hold the boat — all this at the same time as 19 other teammates.

For some team members, the competition and the adrenaline keep them coming back. Travis Krause of Superior has been racing for four years, and enjoys the competitive aspects of the sport, as well as the teamwork. He was introduced to dragon boats by a friend-turned-teammate.

"I tried (dragon-boating) … and then had a festival, and I was addicted," Krause said. "I’m a very competitive person."

Other team members were introduced to the sport through a less traditional path. When Ruth Wittmers was undergoing treatment for breast cancer 13 years ago, she noticed a flier advertising a dragon boat team made up of breast cancer survivors and decided to give it a shot.

"It sounded like it would be interesting to be in a boat with 20 other people and all paddling together and strengthening your body," Wittmers said. She joined the Survivor’s Sistership team in 2002, and she’s paddling more than ever now that she’s also joined Team Surge.

"The exercise, the social ability with all these wonderful people and the fresh air, that kind of covers everything," she said.

Blue Water Paddling is only in its second year, and as Lincoln prepares his eclectic team, he has his eye on the future.

"I want everyone to experience what a great dragon boat race is," he said. "If they experience that, we will have built what we need to build for the future because that’s something that will last."

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