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Dragon boats float their fancy

Local racers are eager to row 'Chinese' craft

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 5, 2002) A story yesterday about the start of dragon boat racing in the region bungled the name of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Two 40-foot dragons have taken up residence on the Three Rivers, and they need dozens of people to fill their bellies.

Mike Lambert, left, Ken Stiles and Cliff Stevenson check out a Chinese "dragon boat" that arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon. (Peter M. Borsh, Post-Gazette)

The long "dragon boats," canoe-like craft with dragon heads on the bows and tails on the sterns, are a centuries-old Chinese tradition that arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon. They are each raced by 18 to 20 people who paddle at once, plus a person in back who steers, plus a person in front who beats a drum to provide the dramatic "heartbeat of the dragon" that keeps everybody in sync.

A local league is forming that seeks participants of all ages and abilities, if this sounds like fun to you. It does to lots of people, judging by the stir the beasts created as they arrived.

"This is far fancier than I ever imagined -- wow!" one young woman exclaimed as she walked the scaly length of the 41-foot red and gold boat at its new base at Three Rivers Rowing Association on Washington's Landing.

Another black and gold boat was later delivered to its new home just up the Allegheny River at the Steel City Rowing Club in Verona. Its executive director, Dori Martin, was all smiles as she went eyeball-to-eyeball with one of the glittery gold dragon faces, with its fearsome white teeth, red tongue, gold whiskers and orange horns.

"For speed, this just doesn't cut it for me," the rowing champion joked.

"Hey, if you take it off, it's not a dragon boat," replied Gary Carstens, the visiting president of the United States Dragon Boat Federation.

Yes, there are national and international bodies dedicated to this sport, which already has a flipper-hold in Pennsylvania, having started in the early 1980s in Philadelphia. Last year, the fourth world championships were held there with crews from 18 countries, and about 50 belong to the International Dragon Boat Federation. More than 20 North American cities hold annual dragon boat festivals.

Dragon boat racing here is being fostered by the two rowing clubs and the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and Greater Pittsburgh Sister City Association -- specifically, the sister city association with Wuhan, China. As part of the 20th anniversary of the relationship between the two cities, various groups and individuals are raising money to pay for the two boats, which cost about $10,000 each. (The Southwestern Planning Commission provided the money to get the boats here.) The fiberglass hulls were made in Germany and finished in Toronto by a company called Great White North that delivered them on a six-wheeled trailer.

The two Hong Kong-style craft will first officially race at the end of the spring, or "Flower Drum," season at the Regatta on July 14. But the main event is the Autumn Moon Festival being planned for North Shore Riverfront Park on Sept. 21, which also will be a celebration of Chinese food and culture.

URA international specialist Jonathan Raiti, who is working on the festival with groups such as the Greater Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association, describes dragon boat racing "as sort of a creative approach to economic development, and another way to draw attention to our transformation and our rivers."

Mike Lambert, Three Rivers Rowing's executive director, sees the boats also as good vehicles for building corporate and other teamwork as well as for bringing together diverse people for a good workout and for good fun.

The dragon boat league, which starts today, could include student, adult, senior and corporate teams. Groups can sign up together (corporations can even pay $1,000 to get their logo on a boat), or individuals can sign up. The fees -- it costs $100 to be on an adult team for a season -- will be reduced for the shortened to six weeks spring season.

Organizers stress how stable and safe the boats are (they float even if swamped), and participants will wear flotation vests. They also stress that this is meant for almost everybody, and that you don't have to be able to paddle 500 meters in under two minutes like the most serious international competitors do.

Martin says Steel City will schedule sessions based on interest and coach availability. Lambert says Three Rivers Rowing plans to hold two sessions -- at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. -- on Tuesday and Thursday nights to start, but it may add a weekend session. He's already thinking about buying another boat or two if interest catches fire likes he believes it will. "I know it's going to take off."

Ultimately, Raiti says, dragon boat racing could attract racers from around the region and even the world.

For more details, call the rowing clubs (Steel City is 412-828-5565 and Three Rivers is 412-231-8772) or go to their Web sites http://www.steelcityrowing.org and http://www.threeriversrowing.org/Programs/Kayak/dragonboat.html)

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