Events: Draggin’ Boat

I’D BEEN APPREHENSIVE about dragon boat camp in the first place, and after a quick survey of the other paddlers in my boat on the first day, I knew my anxiety wasn’t misplaced. Despite the hoods of the rain jackets we wore to shield us from a steady drizzle, I could see that the men and women in my boat were a good 20 years younger than I am, and not only knew each other, but knew what they were doing. When, in a moment of madness, I’d signed up for this camp, I was under the impression that novice paddlers like me would be given special instruction.

Apparently not, since I was in a boat with members of the Canadian national dragon boat team.

 I was put in the rear of the 20-person boat and had no sooner slipped my butt pad in place than the coach barked, “Paddles up!” I hadn’t the foggiest notion what he was talking about. I looked around, and everybody but me confidently raised his or her arms in the air, then hit the water in a strong circular stroke. I tried desperately to mimic their motions, but felt like a novice swimmer flailing the doggie paddle. On top of being mortified, I finished practice discovering muscles I didn’t know existed — and they all hurt. When lunchtime came, there was only one thing I could do: take a nap.

WHEN MY GIRLFRIEND Jill Porter, the Daily News columnist, suggested that a group from our book club fly to Florida for dragon boat camp in April, I figured, why not? The idea of camp conjured up wonderful childhood memories of camaraderie. And because my previous experience with dragon boats — a half-hour in a charity event on the Schuylkill — had been relatively easy, I figured this camp would be fun, despite the fact I’ve never been much of an athlete. What I counted on to get me through the week was my lifelong dedication to fitness. Where sports call for skill, exercise needs only commitment, and I’ve got plenty of that.

About six weeks before D-Day, our quartet — I, Jill, Eve Biskind Klothen (an administrator at Rutgers Law school, and a bona fide jock) and June Wolfson (whose idea of a good time is a 60-mile Breast Cancer Walk) — got an e-mail from the Great White North Dragon Boating association in Canada, outlining an exercise regimen to prepare for our adventure. I read it, blanched, and called the association immediately to say that I was, to put it politely, a senior citizen. The director pooh-poohed my concern and assured me I’d be fine. I hung up and immediately hired a personal trainer.

Dragon boat racing has become one of the most popular team water sports in the world, due at least in part to its effects on breast cancer survivors. (The paddling seems to be effective in battling lymphedema, a collection of fluid in the upper arm that often results from breast surgery.) In ancient China, dragons were venerated deities used to decorate boats for festivals, and through the centuries, racing these boats became a standard part of Chinese celebrations and eventually evolved into a competitive sport. In 1986, Hong Kong donated dragon boats to the city of Vancouver, which organized a festival to bring together its large Chinese immigrant population with Canadian natives. More boats were loaned to other cities, interest spread, and today, racing meets are held nationally and internationally.

Our camp was at the Pines Resort in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, 50 miles southeast of Orlando. It was twilight when we reached the Pines, but not too dark to see that whoever named it a “resort” was the kind of marketing genius who’d call a playground a theme park. Sprawled on 33 acres were barracks-like blocks of two-story condos with picturesque names like Building H and Building M. It was the kind of place where the government puts hurricane victims.

Monday morning, when we reported to the dock at 8:15, sunny Florida was enveloped in a light drizzle, which quickly became a steady rain. In no time, I was soaked. And miserable. We’d been advised beforehand to buy the foam rubber kneeling pads used by gardeners to cushion our butts, as well as padded cycling gloves to protect our hands from blisters. But none of that was enough to help me endure my first outing with the members of the Canadian national team.

Mercifully, I was reassigned in the afternoon. By now we’d found out that our Philadelphia foursome comprised the only novices in camp. Everyone else belonged to a team, and while we’d come for a mini vacation with exercise thrown in, they were there for serious training. Very serious. In addition to the Canadians, there was a boat of breast cancer survivors; another was from Against the Wind, a Philadelphia women’s team that was tuning up for a meet in Australia this fall. Our coach, Albert, a Canadian construction worker, had won seemingly every dragon boat title in the world and regaled us with anecdotes about his races, always embedded with a lesson. He turned out to be that special type of trainer who could push us beyond endurance without losing our affection.  

The first three days were agony. Same routine: Report to the dock by 8:15 for warm-up exercises; paddle for an hour and a half; a stretch class done lying on towels spread out on a dirty, abandoned asphalt tennis court; fitness/nutrition lecture; another paddle in the afternoon; dinner and dead into bed. While dragon boating looks simple, when done correctly it involves torquing the upper body, reaching outward as if your arms are being pulled from their sockets, and pushing powerfully into the water. Even after years of lifting weights, I wasn’t prepared for how arduous it was. The only thing in my body that didn’t pulsate with pain was my big toe. On Wednesday morning, I called my husband and told him to phone me back to say a close relative had died and I had to come home immediately for the funeral.

He thought I was kidding.

BUT AT PRACTICE that afternoon, I had a breakthrough. We’d gone on the water with the Canadian pros, half of us in each boat, and engaged in a series of short racing sprints. It was tough as hell, but something clicked for me. Suddenly I was paddling in rhythm and contributing to the team effort. For a short, exhilarating space, I actually forgot my pain and got a glimpse of why people might enjoy this. Although it was only a glimpse, I called my husband and told him to cancel the funeral.

Thursday was a killer — a 45-minute paddle from the dock to a causeway eight miles distant, then back the same way. As I stumbled out of the boat, panting, I received a green rubber bracelet anointing me a member of the causeway club. It was the closest I will ever come to an Olympic medal.

Friday had us right back to work in preparation for race day, the culmination of the week. Early to bed that night, and no drinking. Thank heavens the pain had finally eased to a dull ache. Saturday morning dawned clear and hot, the air heavy with anticipation. Albert pumped us up with a pep talk, and darned if it didn’t work. In both of the two-minute races, our group paddled like we were trying to escape an oncoming ocean steamer. Though we lost to the Canadians — no surprise — we did come in a respectable second out of four boats in both races.

The highlight of my week was the astonishment on Albert’s face when I revealed my age to him that night at the beer-and-barbecue celebration. That’s when I truly understood I’d done something I could be really proud of. Not many women in their late 60s could have met the physical challenge of that week. And I had to admit, I’d never laughed so much in my life. It had been 40 years since I’d spent a week in close quarters with three women, and when we weren’t kvetching or rubbing each other’s backs with Bengay, we were cracking up with hilarious barbs about what the hell we were doing.

I came home vowing that if I never stepped in a dragon boat again, it would be too soon. When Eve, our jock, joined a team in Philly, I thought she was nuts. Then Philadelphia magazine decided to enter Philly’s dragon boat charity race this month. Guess who was the first to sign up? No way could I pass up my only chance to be the best athlete on the team.