Dragon Boat Festival set to roar into San Francisco

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People from many cultures enjoy fast-growing sport with ancient Chinese roots

The Bay customarily sees a variety of seaworthy vessels on its waters: tankers, haulers, trawlers and destroyers, but Chinese dragon boats will join their much larger brethren on the waters this weekend.

On Saturday, the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival — partially sponsored by The Examiner — kicks off with roughly 80 heats with 100 teams off Treasure Island in two days.

Linda Chieu, the president of the California Dragon Boat Association, said the races, a re-enactment of the Chinese legend, celebrate one of three major holidays with the Moon Festival and Chinese New Year.

Dragon boats are of Chinese historical influence, reaching back 2,300 years to when poet and scholar Qu Yuan leaped into Mei Lo River in southern China to protest the political corruption of the Chu Kingdom.

Local fishermen raced in their boats to save him — which they failed to do — while beating their paddles against the water and throwing silk-wrapped rice dumplings into the water to scare the fish from eating Yuan’s body.

The San Francisco Firefighters Dragon Boat coach, 29-year-old Nick Tan, said he started out “dragonboating” to get back to his Chinese roots and be involved with team sports.

“You’re always searching for things, being American-born, to do things that are from your cultural heritage,” Tan said. “In high school, football, baseball and basketball don’t exactly attract everybody.”

But the festival and competitors aren’t solely Chinese, and Chieu called dragonboating one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation.

“We consider it the ultimate team sport,” she said.

Dragon boats are 45 feet long with a dragonhead on the bow and a tail on the stern. Twenty paddlers follow the pace of the drummer and are steered by a steersman, generally racing 500 meters.

Shawn McDougall, the fitness center coordinator for Mills-Peninsula Health Services in Burlingame, said that in only their third year of racing, they filled up two boats in two days because people were so eager to join.

The captain of the Dragon Warriors team, Jeanie Lee, 47, has paddled for six years after first being invited to race on the San Francisco firefighters team. She said the best attributes of the sport are the age range and camaraderie teams have, noting that she’s been on boats with 18- and 60-year-olds.

“You get hooked on it because of the relationships and friendships you build from it,” Lee said.

dsmith@examiner.com

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