At dragon boat festival, coming in first isn’t the only way to win
In my younger days, celebrating a birthday would mean a trip to Las Vegas or a night at the bar with my buddies. It’s amazing how being a dad changes you. That was the old me. The Fernando in his 30s would rather spend his birthday watching some Discovery Channel and then spending a few hours working in the garden. That was pretty much the plan for my 36th birthday this year until I got a call from the mayor’s office.
The 2014 Hawaii Dragon Boat Festival was approaching and as a commissioner for the city Office of Culture and the Arts, I was invited to paddle for the mayor’s team. The date? July 26 — my birthday. At first the old me started an internal dialogue saying, “You can’t do that. It’s your birthday!” Luckily I snapped out of it, realizing that I had no real plans for my birthday anyway. (I can work in the garden any old time.) Plus, how many people get to spend their birthday with the mayor? “Count me in,” I replied.
Fast forward to our first practice, I introduced myself to my teammates as they trickled in. We were a very diverse group. There were men and women of all ages and backgrounds, but one teammate who stood out was retired city Councilman and motocross champion John DeSoto. At age 67, DeSoto is in way better shape than I am. After we met, he realized I’m Portuguese and for the next hour, I was the butt of all of his jokes. It’s OK, the guy’s a legend.
Our practice started with a five-minute crash course in paddling by the race organizers. It touched on things like how to hold the paddle, how to paddle, how to enter and exit the boat, how to sit in the boat and finally, a warning about how easily the boat can tip over. Being one of the heavier guys on the team, I was assigned to be a power paddler toward the back end of the boat. It was my first time paddling and so I assumed I’d just be using my arm muscles. It turns out the motion of paddling is more like doing a half sit-up, over and over again. In fact, before we even dipped our paddles into the water, we practiced sit-ups in unison.
Now when it comes to paddling, the key is to be in sync with the paddle in front of you. If everyone isn’t paddling together, it creates drag in the water and can ultimately lead to the boat tipping over. Despite not being able to see my 15 fellow paddlers, I could feel when we were not paddling together. On the same note, it was amazing to feel those brief moments when we were in sync. It felt as if we were gliding above the water. Truly amazing.
On race day we slipped on our race jerseys, posed for a team photo and watched the pace of teams already competing. At the front of each boat sat a flag catcher and a drummer. The paddlers are supposed to have their paddles hit the water at each drum beat. The tempos varied between boats and the winning boat didn’t necessarily have the fastest tempo. These races were being won on technique.
It was finally time for the city division teams to compete and ours was the first boat in the water. We circled around for a few minutes to allow space for our competitors to enter. The other two boats were lined up and we were approaching our starting point at a 25-degree angle when we heard a foghorn. Our steersman shouted, “We’re starting, go!”
In a panic, our paddles were flapping in the water randomly for a good eight seconds before we synced up. Our steersman was challenged with starting from an angle and so there was some overcompensation in his steering. The other two boats made their way towards their flagged buoys while we headed toward the reef. Our steersman shouted, “hold water” which meant for us to hold our paddles in the water to brake our momentum. At that point, we needed to turn about 45 degrees to get back on track; but again, there was overcompensation in our steering, which led us straight toward the shore.
Our families waved at us as they were treated to a rare close-up view of our dragon boat. However, we started getting too close to shore so our steersman called for us to hold water again while our families ran out of the water. After our freestyle zigzag across the water, we straightened out to pass our buoy, where we were greeted with a pity clap from our fellow competitors and onlookers.
The first two boats to finish each heat moved on to the next round. At third place, the mayor’s Team was done for the day. Fortunately the mayor had to be off island that day so he didn’t have to witness his team’s loss. But he should be glad to know that he has a team full of optimists.
“Let’s do it again.”
“We’ll get ‘em next time.”
That’s what was said back and forth between members as we made our way back to our team tent. Once we returned to our families, we dove into our potluck where I was surprised with a giant birthday cake. Visiting dragon boat teams from Australia and Canada came over to help sing “Happy Birthday” and wish me many more healthful years.
Will I paddle for the mayor at age 37? You bet! Well, if he invites me back.