Dragon Boat Races Bring Crowds to Portland Waterfront

The day was warm and dry, with the familiar aroma of food carts in the air. Children ran around chasing each other and throwing rocks into the Willamette River. People lined up next to the water in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, trying to get a good view of the boats and the finish line.

The boats, decorated with traditional Chinese dragon heads at the front, came into sight at last. Bright red noses and fiery orange and yellow flares came out of the backs of the dragons’ necks. Green scales lined the sides and big white fangs stuck out of the dragons’ mouths.

On each boat, 23 athletes worked in unison to the beat of a fast-paced drum and a coach calling out to the team. Their practice and dedication was on spotlight for the world to see — it was competitive rowing at its best.

The 29th annual Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race took place on June 10th and 11th. The event was hosted by the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association, which provides the boats and the cultural context by way of bringing the history and tradition of dragon boat races to Portland for this annual competition.

Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Photo by Nicholas Freese

At this year’s race, over 95 teams competed in 50 heats, or races, per day, with over 2,000 participants and an estimated 40,000 spectators, race officials said.

Anyone could participate, and people of all ages, ethnicities and abilities did. The teams hailed from all around the U.S. and from around the world. There were three groups of participants: a high school age group, an over 55 age group, and then the main group of competitors from college age to 55 years old.

Some of the participants did it for fun, but other teams traveled from other states or parts of the world to compete for cash prizes. The tournaments were based on a point system that combined winning different heats and accumulating points from grabbing the flag at the finish line. A single heat usually lasted about two minutes, with most races ending in a close finish.

Four dragon boats raced in each heat. In each boat, 20 rowers, one tiller (who steered), one coach who beat a drum, and a flag grabber competed for the team. The flag grabber often hung dangerously off the front of the speeding boat to grab a colored flag at the finish line to win the heat. Every race started under the Hawthorne Bridge and the boats did a 300-yard sprint to the flags.

Dragon boats lining up under Hawthorne bridge to race. Photo by Nicholas Freese

Wayne Phillips, a lead volunteer for the race, said the event is serious business. Participants usually practice year-round, he said, including his wife, who was competing on the Golden Dragons, the over 55-year-old team from Portland. Each team was responsible for providing two volunteers, and about 300 volunteers participated, Phillips said.

“We love it,” Phillips said. “You interact with people, give back to the community, and help further the sport. You name the cause, it’s worth it all around.”

The premise of the race is to bring a piece of Taiwanese culture to Portland, by way of its sister city Kaohsiung in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China. Kaohsiung has been Portland’s sister city since 1988, and their bond has been measured by many missions of goodwill from each city to the other like gifts and delegations of people.

Dragon boat racing dates back more than 2,400 years and is popular as an aspect of rowing, especially to the Taiwanese people. The first dragon boat racers were said to be superstitious farmers who praised the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Races were held to avoid bad luck and bring the rains needed for crops — the dragon being the symbol of their worship, as well as being traditionally a symbol for water.

According to the dragon boat organization of the U.K., another story associated with the dragon boat races is “the touching saga of Qu Yuan.”

According to legend, Qu Yuan spent a long couple decades walking the countryside and creating amazing poetry until, upon hearing of the fall of his kingdom, he jumped into the Mi Lo River holding a massive rock to display his unbearable sadness. The villagers loved Qu Yuan so much that they raced out in their fishing boats in a pointless attempt to rescue him. They hit on drums and splashed their oars in the water, trying to keep the fish from eating his body.

Although the historical context gives great perspective, the dragon boat races today are more of an important hobby for competitors. For some, the supportive and community oriented atmosphere is the main draw.

Chris Yee, founder of the KP Dragons club that’s based out of Oakland, California, traveled with her team and two other teams of youth and over 55-year-olds. Most of the team members are planning to spend a couple extra days around Portland, Yee said, spending quality time with teammates.

“It’s more than just a team,” Yee said. “We are like a family. We were started by Kaiser (a health insurance provider) so we started with a focus on health and wellness. You get good exercise, camaraderie, and you get to just be casual and play.”

KP Dragons. Photo by Nicholas Freese

The KP dragons have been coming to Portland for years, either to the June competition or a larger one in September, Yee said. They practice year-round to stay fit, and when the season picks up in April, they practice at least three times a week, doing training in and out of the water.

The youth teams also work hard to compete at the event.

Tabitha Speere and Eleanor Swift, two of the young ladies on St. Mary’s Academy blue team, said that fun is the biggest motivator. The two bring friends with them to sign up and make friends while they are at the event.

“Being in sync is key,” the pair said simultaneously. “That’s why we practice three days a week,” Speere added.

Swift is the flag-grabber for the team. She said a girl almost fell off the front the day prior. That is why the teams have parents and coaches around to emphasize safety at all times, she said.

“Its not only about winning, but that is an important part for me at least,” Swift said. “St. Mary’s red team is in the finals for the first time ever, I’m so excited!”

Even though Swift was on St. Mary’s blue team, she still cheered vigorously for St. Mary’s red team. The red team lost in the final heat.

For race results, click here.

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