Dragon Boat Racing: An Expat's Perspective

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Over the weekend of 30 June-1 July, Penang’s normally quiet Teluk Bahang Dam was transformed by the 33rd Plenitudes Penang International Dragon Boat Festival. Penang expat and novice dragon boater John Nisted wielded his paddle and took part in this great annual event.

Have you ever had one of those fleeting thoughts — How did I let myself get talked into this?! – only to find that the very thing you were talked into becomes one of your most memorable experiences? That was the situation I found myself in as a member of the “Commonstealth” premier mixed dragon boat team.

Our 16 team members came from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and professions. Our team comprised eight school teachers and one principal from three of the international schools in Penang (the International School of Penang (Uplands), Tenby International School Penang, and Saint Christopher’s International Primary School (SCIPS)); two from the Butterworth RAAF base; two business owners; two partners; and one Masters student. Four nationalities from the Commonwealth countries were represented: England, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. We were united by our penchant for
challenge and having a good time. We were determined to mix it up with the best dragon boaters from around the world and to enjoy ourselves to the max.

With its origins going back over 2,500 years in China, dragon boat racing is now a global sporting phenomenon enjoyed in countries such as Canada, the USA, Australia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and of course throughout China and Southeast Asia. Teams are normally made up of either 10 or 20 paddlers, with one sweep (steersman) at the rear and a drummer up front to provide the boat’s “heartbeat” to help the paddlers maintain their rhythm. Events are usually held over 200- and 500-metre courses.

Our motley crew arrived, surprisingly all on time, for day 1 at Teluk Bahang Dam. We were greeted by our longsuffering coach, Adrian (a dedicated local Penang paddler), and proceeded rather haphazardly in setting up camp. This was in stark contrast to the orderly, almost militant, setup of many of the visiting teams. With over 30 teams competing, ours was the only camp complete with eskies (or chilly bins for the Kiwis), copious quantities of food, and plenty of liquid refreshments. It was clear that we were here as much for the celebration as for the participation!

Saturday was the 200-metre event. We were in the first round of heats, the winners of which were to proceed straight to the finals. Not making the final, we then had to back up and paddle in the repechage event, which is the last-chance qualifying heat. Although the competition was hot, we still managed a very commendable second place. It was also our best time ever, and we were able to finish the race with heads held high.

With a slight sense of déjà vu, we returned on Sunday for the gruelling 500-metre event. Our enthusiasm was still keen and our determination to perform like true champions remained galvanised. With ample leftovers from the previous day to keep our strength up and spirits high, we felt ready to tackle the task ahead.

A slight breeze ruffled the normally still waters of the dam for the start of our first heat. The now-familiar feeling of adrenalin coursing through our veins added to our sense of excitement, and against only five other teams, we felt that we had a good chance to bag this one and make it straight to the finals. Alas, despite a massive “ALL OUT” (this is a call from the sweep to extract every last once of effort from the paddlers), this was not to be.

Like the day before, we found ourselves quickly having to regain our breath, strength, and composure to fight it out in the repechage. Again we were up against some stiff competition with teams from Thailand, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia (the Malaysian Navy Paddlers went on to win the final). After paddling our hearts out, we crossed the finish line in fifth place, having smashed our previous best time by over 14 seconds! We did ourselves and our coach proud! Now it was time to kick back and enjoy the festivities.

Without doubt the underlying vibe throughout the entire weekend was the joy of meeting people from different countries and different walks of life. The enjoyment continued into the evening celebrations over dinner in Batu Ferringhi. Over 400 people filled the Golden Thai Seafood Village Restaurant where the food, drink, and entertainment flowed happily. What a fantastic way to end an extremely memorable weekend.

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As one of our team Kelly Luby was heard saying above the cacophony, “After months of calling it the ‘dreaded dragon boat,’ it’s actually quite sad that it is all over. A great weekend, a great team.”

Would I do it again? Absolutely!!

Source: Penang International, August/September 2012

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