Paddles up! Trying out a dragon boating practice on the Cuyahoga River

I rowed for a practice with the Cleveland Dragon Slayers, as they prepared for Sandusky’s Dragons and Bacon festival. (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

“Attention!” Jessica Fleming shouts from the bow of the dragon boat. All 10 paddlers lean in, ready.

“Paddles up!” We each lift one arm over our heads and shoot one arm to the side, making a triangle shape with our heads.

“Take it away!” And we paddle. We sit two by two, following the pacers and the 1-2-3-4 count of Fleming, the drummer. 

By the fourth set of 10, I can feel the muscles in my forearms. I need to twist more, hold my paddle lower, get my wrist wet.

I have no idea what I’m doing. My mom has been dragon boat team for years. But while I’ve kayaked, rowed crew and cruised on a stand-up paddleboard, I’ve never tried paddling one of the 40-foot-long, 600-pound boats.

The Dragon Slayers, one of the 10 teams in the Cleveland Dragon Boat Association, let me try out a practice as they prepared for the Dragons and Bacon Festival in Sandusky Saturday. (They let anyone try out a practice, for free, actually. They’ll provide the life jacket, paddle and instruction. You just need to show up at the dock, at Merwin’s Wharf on the Cuyahoga River.)

Try dragon boating this summer with the Cleveland Dragon Boat Association

Dragon boating began as a Chinese ritual celebrating Qe Yuan, the great Chinese warrior poet, who committed suicide in the river Mi Lo to protest political corruption. Legend said that followers raced out in their boats to save him.

In 1976 the first Hong Kong International Races began the era of modern dragon boat racing, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation. The sport is increasingly popular, with more than 300,000 participants in Europe and 90,000 in the United States and Canada, many of them made of breast-cancer survivors.

Paddlers prepare for a dragon boat practice on the Cuyahoga River on Sept. 11, 2018. (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

The nonprofit Cleveland Dragon Boat Association has been hosting a festival since 2007. Anyone can join, at a cost of $5 per practice or $75 for a season. 

See a photo gallery of the Cleveland Dragon Boat Festival at Lorain’s Black River Landing here. 

See a video here.

Each team has a drummer at the bow, a steerer at the stern and 20 paddlers, each with one paddle their aim to move in unison.

At Tuesday’s Dragon Slayer practice, we had 10 paddlers, spread over the boat. Members range from age 15 to 80.

“I saw it for the first time in Denver, and I was like, ‘What the heck is this?'” said Dorian Green, 43, of Cleveland. He and other federal government employees formed a team to enter the Dragon Boat Festival. Then Green found the Dragon Slayers. 

Green used to run track. But this is the first time he’s been on a team where people are counting on him.

“I’m competitive. It’s challenging,” he said. 

Sarah Peterbaugh is 15, persuaded to join by her classmate’s aunt, Raquel Timm, to try the sport. Timm’s now lobbying for Peterbaugh’s friends to join.

Peterbaugh and Timm sit side-by-side on the boat, and we all switch sides halfway through practice — after doing some drills and practice race starts. 

At 8 p.m., the end of the one-hour practice, the sun had set over Cleveland. And I was breathing hard.

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