Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dragonboating - The View From the Front

This morning my plan for today was to spend a few hours in the office finishing up a project, then go out rowing on the dragon boat and have dinner with the rest of the crew afterwards.

Midday I received an email from the dragon boat captain. He wasn't going to be able to attend practice tonight. Am I going? Can I help out? I responded with an affirmative to both. I had planned to attend, of course I can help out. What could that mean? That I'd be collecting the fees or leading the warmup?

Five minutes later I saw an email to the group - "Alicia will be our coach tonight."

Tonight was my fourth time on the boat. I arrived at the boathouse early enough to watch some Chinese tourists rowing on a dragon boat, complete with drummer, before our practice. It was nice to watch a boat from the shore, to see what it looked like, but I wanted to be on the water.

Different members of my group slowly arrived. Some people had seen the email, some hadn't. Some were friends of mine, some were people I'd never before met. There were a couple of experienced regulars who were helping with management of the group - steering the boat, collecting the boat fees. We started with warmups, then it was time to get into the boat. As we set out I knelt in the front of the boat - on the prow, watching the rest of the team in the almost full boat. We started slowly then built momentum and were quickly out in the middle of Houhai.

We did different drills. We passed under the bridge into Qianhai (the lake to the south of Houhai) without any incident. I made suggestions to a couple of people on how to improve their posture and their strokes. Onlookers cheered us on with shouts of 'jia you!' We were the subject of much interest, as locals and tourists alike watched the boat, filled with mostly Chinese rowers, being captained by a woman who is quite obviously not from around here. Some tourists asked if we were practicing for competition and we said yes, since we're looking forward to going to a few races around the country after the festivities in Beijing in August. Then they asked if we were prepping for the Olympics. We chuckled: we're not *that* good.

After a couple of turns around Qianhai we headed back to Houhai to pick up some latecomers. There was the usual traffic jam of boats under the bridge and I scrambled across the prow to unhook us from a gondola-like boat in front of us. We did some more drills and made our way back to the dock, where some of our rowers left us for other commitments and we gained a number of latecomers. The second time we left the dock the boat was completely full.

Some of the new rowers were brand new. I later found out they were American college students studying in Beijing for the summer and they've only been here for five days. After asking for a show of hands to see who had not rowed before and seeing that half of my boat was inexperienced I gave a quick lesson on how to hold the oar and how we row. I also explained that in a dragonboat it isn't really important how fast or hard we row, what makes us go fast is when we row together, as a team. This time we started rowing even more slowly so that the newcomers could get the feel for moving with the rest of the group. As we sped up I reminded them to watch the person in front of them and synchronize their movements. We did some more drills.

It felt great to sit at the front of the boat, to watch everyone move together under my direction and to feel the breeze as the dragon boat glided over the water. Everyone was encouraging and there was no threat of mutiny - though I felt the need to listen carefully whenever non-English speakers conversed to make sure that my name and the Putonghua words for 'water' or 'lake' were not uttered together, as Houhai is not exactly pristine and I don't want to be pitched into it. I missed getting to row but know that on Sunday I'll be back on a bench with an oar in my hands.

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