James Chen’s sport of choice used to be rugby. Now, he spends his mornings in a crowded boat, paddling through the Schuylkill.
“I’m feeling exhilarated,” Chen said minutes after his team won a race at the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday. The annual event draws more than 3,000 paddlers and tough competition from more than 40 countries to the river winding through Fairmount Park. Each year, participants steer dragon boats — long, sleek canoes adorned with intricately carved dragon heads — down the waterway for a chance at glory.
“It’s a great team sport,” Chen said. “It’s all about like synchronization, everyone getting to a certain physique level and bonding with your teammates.”
Unlike rowing or kayaking, each boat contains up to 20 paddlers. A drummer sits at the front of the boat to keep the team pulling rhythmically, while a steersperson guides the team from the back.
“It’s team building,” said Sharon Cerogino, a member of the all-female Philadelphia Flying Phoenix, “because you have to learn to paddle as one.”
Working as one has brought Cerogino’s team pretty far. 11 members are traveling to the Yunnan Province of China this month to compete in the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships, and the senior team also plans to compete in the 2018 championships, which will be held in Hungary.
The history of Dragon Boat Racing stretches back thousands of years. According to Chinese legend, Qu Yuan jumped into a powerful river after being exiled from the ancient state of Chu. To save the poet and statesman, fishermen rushed into the river, armed with boats and paddles. The tradition has endured.
The Woodbury Wahines, a women’s team from South Jersey, woke up at 4 a.m. to warm up, decorate their tent and, of course, fry some eggs by Kelly Drive for breakfast.
“Every year,” said team member Ann Atkinson, “it just gets bigger, better and more fun.”
Here are more scenes from this year’s festival: