To the beat of a lone drummer, a team of 20 rowers powers a boat along the river. It’s a formidable sight at more than 40 feet in length, adorned at the front with a menacing dragon head.
Though the history of dragon boats dates back to ancient China, the sport of dragon boat racing has experienced a revival in North America since appearing at the Vancouver Expo in 1986. The aquatic sport will make its debut in Concord on Saturday, Sept. 7, at the inaugural Weekend on the Water festival.
In addition to high school crew races, live music and Super Duck Boat Tours, the festival will be bringing in two dragon boats from 22 Dragons, a company based in Montreal and Burlington, Vt., that supplies boats, equipment and instruction at events throughout the U.S. and Canada. Throughout the day, teams of 21 will go head to head to see who can paddle these behemoth boats the fastest.
Matt Robert, owner and founder of 22 Dragons, said dragon boat racing is a sport that almost everyone can take part in because the team with the most brute strength is not always the one that wins. Instead, he said, to succeed on one of these boats, it’s essential for the whole team to row in time with the drummer.
“It’s a fun day and is not too serious,” Robert said. “But people right away start talking about their strategies, and they really get into it and want to beat the other team. The best strategy by far is timing and good synchronization. You don’t always see the strongest or fittest team win. It’s usually the team with really good rhythm.”
The festival, hosted by Concord Parks and Recreation in partnership the Concord Rotary, Concord Crew and the Black Ice Pond Hockey Tournament, was developed as a way to highlight the Merrimack River and serve as a fundraiser for the planned multipurpose building in White Park.
Concord Parks and Recreation director David Gill said the annual Black Ice Pond Hockey Tournament has been a huge success for fundraising and community building in the winter, and adding a summer event will help push the project forward. He said the festival is a family-friendly event, and while young children will be better suited to watching the dragon boats as opposed to rowing them, kids can take part in a rubber duck race and ride aboard a Super Duck Boat Tour, which will be giving a historical tour of Concord.
“Being the first year, the sky is the limit,” Gill said. “We’re hoping for nice weather and hoping for a good crowd.”
Limited space remains to sign up for the dragon boat races; those who are interested can contact parks and rec to sign up. But even for visitors who won’t be rowing, Robert said there will be plenty of action to watch.
The races will be sprints of approximately 200 meters and each race is expected to end within one minute. Once all of the head-to-head races are complete, Robert said, representatives from 22 Dragons will determine which teams will compete in the finals. To make sure everyone gets the same amount of time in the boat, there will be various divisions in the finals based on each team’s speed.
“It promotes the idea that anyone can do it and it keeps the races real close since no one is going to beat another team by too much in a race of 200 meters,” Robert said.
As the sport of dragon boat racing grows, he has noticed that most major cities now have their own clubs. But, he said, establishing dragon boat festivals in small cities like Concord is a great way to keep the ancient tradition alive.
“I’m convinced that within three to five years people will want to start a local club, and the interest will grow and people will want to have a boat there,” Robert said.