Honest Reflections — Five Years of Dragon Boat (mostly high school)

I took this photo before my last high school race.

In this post, I hope to explain that dragon boat is awesome before elaborating on why it frustrated me so much. The community is great, and the experience is like nothing else, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in paddling to give it a chance.

But it’s not for everyone.

A Brief Explanation

This is one of the better videos on dragon boat technique.

Dragon boat, in a nutshell, is a paddling sport for boats that typically hold around 20 people. Why does it require 20 people? Because those boats are heavy. Sources say that dragon boats are typically 600 pounds when empty, but some of the ones we used in the Bay Area were much heavier.

Though it has an obvious traditional aspect (hence the name dragon boat), dragon boat races are a lot like other competitive races — you have a start line, you have a finish line, and you see who gets there first. People unfamiliar with the sport often ask if it’s done around Chinese New Year. Dragon boat festivals take place year-round, all over the world.

As you would expect, dragon boat teams are most effective when everyone paddles in time and with good technique. Why are people so passionate about it? Because it’s actually really hard to paddle with near-perfect technique, and it only counts when an entire boat works effectively as a unit. This can be a lifelong challenge.

What I Liked

This was the Balboa High School team, taken when most of us were juniors or sophomores.

When I first got on the water, it was really hard. After I got over that first hump, it was almost indescribable. Nothing I know quite compares to that experience of racing.

When you’re in one of those two-minute races, nothing else matters. The world is reduced to a line, and when you hear the foghorn it’s reduced to a point. You feel the energy and the movement. Your body is exploding and all you care about is right there. There’s no past and no future. There’s only you and your teammates. You’re getting tired, and it’s hurting, but you don’t give a damn.

We were a team. We got where we were together. The team did not exist until someone I knew created it and an adult team sponsored it.

One thing you should know about me: Before dragon boat, I was never passionate about any sort of exercise. Dragon boat obviously required a lot of training on water, but it also included a lot of running, strength training, and other generic things like that. I went from having a nine-minute mile as a high school freshman to a six-minute mile as a high school sophomore. I found that I could do more push-ups, and run longer distances, and I was really impressed by my own improving abilities.

You know what ability wasn’t improving at an impressive rate? My paddling.

What I Didn’t Like

The comments section is politically charged, but I think this video does a good job of conveying what dragon boat is supposed to be about: Teamwork, passion, and focus.

You keep trying to get the perfect stroke, and your team walks you through how they do it. You get the main technique down, and then you just kind of do the same thing forever.

The repetitiveness isn’t what really got to me, though.

It’s hard to put into words how frustrating this became. Criticism is vital, and a little teasing is a catalyst for improvement, but these things were particularly hard to take in dragon boat. Let me illustrate why with a hypothetical example:

Let’s say you run all the time, with other people, and someone says that you have really bad form (they say it in a less polite way, but you get the idea). What do you do? Maybe you feel really bad for a little while, and you know your feelings are hurt, but then you can closely examine your form, incorporate what you’ve learned into future efforts, and then assess the results.

This last step is critical. If you change your form and can confirm that your running time actually improves, then you’re heading in the right direction. Maybe people still make fun of your form, but you’ll know if your heart that their feedback helped you. In dragon boat, I knew what I was doing incorrectly and I met people who gave me advice on possible solutions. What’s hard to assess in dragon boat is when you’re really getting things right.

It would be nice if every time you took a stroke, some device told you if it was good or bad. Bad. Bad. GOOD. Keep doing that. That last stroke you took has been archived, and a video is available for your review. When you run, you can take your time. When you lift weights, you can measure amount and repetition. Subjective things like writing are harder to measure, and I don’t even want to get started on how frustrating that is.

I had tons of data on how my team was doing, but not on how I was doing. Was I good? Was I bad? How good was I, or how bad was I? How much potential did I have? What was I doing really well, and how much of a contribution was I making to our speeds?

If a rival runner is annoying you by bragging, race. You can do that when you run. Life does not always afford you such easy metrics, but there are some activities that nicely balance individualism and teamwork. The thing that people love so much about dragon boat is the same thing that made me start to lose interest — it’s all about the team. But without a way to know exactly how I was as an individual paddler, I had no way to know what I really meant to the team.

Back to Things I Liked

We bought our own paddles and customized them. My dad printed vinyl for this; I think I overdid it, but it’s still one of my favorite things.

We went to Long Beach. That was awesome. That might even be my best high school memory.

We were sponsored by a team called the Dragon Healers, and I wrote this for them shortly after Long Beach.

When I think back on everything, I think that we had some really good times. We were high school kids, so we were taking AP tests, applying for colleges, expressing interest in particular people of the opposite gender. Dragon boat was this common thing we did, and some of my most memorable high school experiences were just commonplace moments during and after practice.

I know we had our drama, but like most things it ended up being all about the people. Now, without that common thread, I don’t know how everyone is. I’ve kept in touch with a fair number, but not everyone.

Quick Note: Davis Racing Dragons

Oh hey, I still have that shirt! Thank you, Facebook, for reminding me what’s in my own closet.

No complaints with the Davis Racing Dragons. I feel like they gave me a path forward, and all the resources I needed, but I still left after two seasons because of college stress and some of the frustrations I’ve mentioned above.

Honestly, that’s why it would kind of embarrass me when I ran into the team.

Closing Thoughts

An arrogant team measures success by how they compare to other people. A confident team measures success by how they compare to themselves, and how much they’ve improved. We want to be a confident team, and not an arrogant one.
 — Lawrence Pang

If anything, my experience with dragon boat only makes me respect the people who stuck it out more. How can you do something for so long, and still remain passionate and positive? It requires something that goes beyond selfish, individual goals.

No one can explain exactly what it’s like to be on the water without taking you there. I think that most of the people who go away from it still carry some desire to get back on one of those boats, if only to remember what it feels like.

And on it goes.