Big bright sun, blue sky, no wind. I am standing on a small bluff overlooking Lake Merced, said lake located between the backside of San Francisco State College and the Pacific Ocean. This is dragon-boat racing day, known to participants as the California Dragon Boat Association College Cup Championship.
Just this once I’ll skip the first 2500 years of dragon-boat racing and begin here. I’m told that modern dragon boats weigh up to 800 pounds and can go 60 feet in length. Most collegiate dragon boats carry 20 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer. The drummer sits in the bow facing the paddlers. And when you first see a dragon boat coming, think 20 angry, crazy paddlers in a huge painted-up war canoe, a snarling dragon’s head at the prow, the drummer pounding on his big drum counting out strokes — THUMPA, THUMPA, THUMPA — looking like Mike Tyson on pharmaceutical speed, the enormous canoe seeming to jump out of the water on every down stroke — well, pilgrim, you won’t forget that image.
Meet Gavin Ifhihara-Wing, last year’s captain of the University of California San Diego dragon-boat racing team. I ask, “How long is the season?”
Gavin says, “We usually attend four races. One here, one in Arizona during March, one in Long Beach in May, and one in June or July.
“We can’t afford to go anywhere outside of the state other than Arizona. We have a little bit of funding as a recreational club; just like any other club — like a music club — we get that type of funding, but as an athletic team we don’t receive any additional funding.
“There are 15 teams here; some schools have two teams. The schools, going north to south, are Davis, Berkeley, Stanford, UCI, UCLA, USC, UCSD, and a couple of local teams.
“We train every weekend year-round, and when we get closer to the races, we practice on Fridays. Those sessions are on the water. During the week we have two land workouts where we do weightlifting and cardio.”
Introducing Jonathan Lin, senior, human biology major at UCSD. “All the teams are strong. The UCs always have good representation. I’m proud of my team today. They’ve risen to the occasion. Our A crew came in first in their first heat. Our B crew came in first in their first heat.” (San Diego A and B crews have qualified for the mixed [coed] championship race.)
“Our organization is a club on campus. We try to promote being a close-knit group and being there for each other.”
Presenting Michelle Yu, communications major, president of the UCSD dragon-boat club. “I got into dragon boat in my freshman year. My suitemate was from San Francisco and she raced in high school. She brought me out. I enjoyed hanging out with everyone. I enjoyed the sport. It grew from there.
“I guess you could say that whoever wins today would supposedly be the top college team in California. They’ll have bragging rights until this race next year. Unlike other sports at school that have weekly games, dragon boat only has one race every two or three months. It’s only two-and-a-half minutes on the water every time. It’s crucial that we perform on race day.”
Yu is writing on white board, printing names next to row positions. She has two boats, UCSD A, UCSD B.
“There are sections within the boat that have certain jobs. Row one is the strokers. They set the tone, they set the pace. They also have the hardest job: breaking dead water. The whole boat has to follow row one in terms of the rate because timing is crucial. Rows two and three support the strokers by holding the rate and keeping the stroke as long as possible. Then, rows four through seven is like our engine room, the heart of the boat. Usually, it’s guys; they like that adrenaline rush. And then rows eight, nine, and ten are the back half. They’re like the legs of the boat. They have to bear down deep, find dead water, and push. If they don’t, they’re just pulling the water that’s already running.
“There are three divisions — A, B, and C. This is the first time our team has both of our crews in the A Division. Regardless of how well we do, this in itself is already an accomplishment. We’re really proud. The big race is the mixed final (the last race of the meet). That’s what every college team is here for. There’s a trophy that’s passed on year after year.”
Mixed final results: 1st place UC San Diego A, 2nd UCLA, 3rd Davis, 4th UC Irvine, 5th UC San Diego B.