Walk along Pittsburgh’s Washington’s Landing park in the summertime and you’ll hear a strange sound: war drums, beating steadily, growing slowly louder, approaching along the water. Peer through the trees to see a multi-colored, ornately carved boat streaking down the Allegheny River while 20 men and women paddle to the rhythm of the drum.
As the heartbeat of the boat grows faster, the rowing pairs start to sweat, easing their boat past the paddlers and kayakers out for an evening adventure. They don’t even look back as you stare on, certain you’ve sneaked a peek at an ancient ritual.
Dragon boating is, in fact, a primitive sport. According to the Pittsburgh Paddlefish, one of the city’s co-ed, mixed age teams, it originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. Recently, dragon boating has enjoyed resurgence worldwide and, for the past few decades, the boats have been navigating the many waters of the Keystone State.
One dedicated paddler, Judy Robertson, heard about dragon boating in 2005. She was organizing a youth conference for Communities in Action for Peace, teaching young people how to get along with one another and resolve conflicts. She quickly learned dragon boating was the ideal activity for such cooperation. The sport requires absolute unison from paddlers, who must move in synch or risk slowing the boat down (hence the drum to keep the pulse). Something magical happens when all 20 paddlers move as one, even coordinating their breath. Robertson says, “Once I stepped into the boat to accompany them, I was hooked!” She convinced her husband to jump in a dragon boat, too, and the couple has spent most Thursday evenings since then out on the water with the Paddlefish.
The community of dragon boaters seems to draw in paddlers as much as the activity itself. Rachel Blair found an instant social network when she moved to Pittsburgh and joined the dragon boating team. She describes herself as a boomerang — she grew up in Pennsylvania, spent many years living in Honolulu, and then moved back to set down roots — and wanted an activity to feed her hunger for water sports, which she developed living by the ocean. Blair says that, “Although the Allegheny River is a completely different environment than Waikiki Beach, my Paddlefish teammates have a ton of aloha.”
Perhaps the dragon boaters are so spirited and welcoming because they share a competitive drive that takes them around the globe. Pittsburgh has sent paddlers to world championship events in Malaysia, Berlin and Prague, and even recreational rowers have found success at regattas on the East Coast and Canada. Or maybe there is just something unique about the view from the water. Robertson says nothing compares to a seat in a dragon boat at dusk in October, with the lights of downtown Pittsburgh flashing before her, surrounded by silence save for the slurp of the water on her paddle and that primal drum.
Jacob Witul, another member of the Paddlefish, says the view from the river “looks like a city with no cars,” a landscape that seems all bridges and buildings. It’s a wonderful change of pace amidst an otherwise hectic life. The evening practices, which include a core-building, many-mile paddle, offer Witul and his teammates a moment of mindfulness. They work their bodies furiously, unified in their task of sailing the boat along the water, until the drummer calls, “Let it ride!” and they all pick up their paddles together, making the dragon glide toward the fountain at Point State Park.
You don’t have to commit to a full season of dragon boat practices to share in this intense experience. Dragon boaters’ zeal for the sport leads them to welcome even curious visitors to recreational leagues. Since timing and unison are more important than brute strength, it’s a sport families can enjoy together even if they’ve never done anything athletic before.
The Paddlefish, for instance, host free opportunities for newcomers to dragon boating (participate in three practice sessions at no cost). “Paddle and Picnic” days are open to paddlers young and old and include dragon boating lessons, team background information, and a slow, instructional, 5.75 mile paddle from the Millvale boathouse to PNC Park and back.
If you go, you’re sure to find the Robertsons there. They have a knack for luring people to the docks. And you’ll quickly see why this water sport is spreading like dragon fire.
Pittsburgh Paddlefish: pittsburghpaddlefish.org, [email protected] or 412.231.8772. Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association: independencedragonboat.com, [email protected]. Harrisburg’s Chinese Cultural and Arts Institute Global Dragons: Bill Hubler, [email protected], 717.497.4400.