ITHACA, NY -- Having watched numerous dragon boat races, and having seen the power and grace and synchronicity of the paddlers, and felt the thumping beat of the drums, it was quite a contrast. A lone man sat in an empty boat, using a repurposed laundry detergent bottle to bail out a few inches of rainwater. “You'd be surprised how much difference a few gallons of water can make,” Matt Oliver told me. “Especially if we're on rough water.”
I asked Matt if he was the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club's “new kid on the block,” so to speak. “No, this is my fourth summer,” he offered, looking rather zen as he settled into the rythym of bailing water. Asked what he did in his “other life,” Matt said he works for Ursa Space Systems, and “Coming here three days a week for an hour-and-a-half is a great way to get on the lake, and it has helped me connect with other paddle sport people like kayakers, members of the outrigger club and the S.U.P. (Stand Up Paddleboard) folks.”
It took Matt some time to complete his bailing task, as the dragon boats are 12 meters long, and they weigh 1,500 pounds. Each boat features ten seats on which two paddlers sit side by side, and there is still enough room for the drummer and the steerperson, who sits at the stern and uses an eight-foot oar as a rudder.
As Matt and I talked, more paddlers showed up for the Monday practice, and I noticed that some had an extra swagger in their step. Several members of the club (which is part of the Ithaca Asian-American Association) had just returned from The Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival in New Jersey where, as proudly proclaimed by the club's Facebook page, “We won this Big Ass medal for fastest time, and a silver for 2nd place in combined times!”
While the sport was born 2,000 years ago, the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club was founded in 2004 by Siv Somchanhmavong, who brought the sport to Ithaca together with his wife, Amy; the two are still the head coaches. With the recent acquisition of two new boats — “Taughannock” and “Osprey” — the club now has four boats, and when I visited on Monday, I was steered toward one of the club's longstanding members. I asked Surya Saha if he was in charge, and he replied, “No, we're all just basically paddlers.”
Surya said, “I got involved 10 years ago, when I came to Cornell. I took part in the Dragon Boat Festival and I got hooked, as being on the lake is one of the best parts of living in Ithaca.” He added, “I appreciate the fact that we are as diverse a group of people as you will find,” and pointed out that the club “has members from [ages] 15 to close to 70, we draw a mix of abilities, and we are a cross-section of people from all over the region.”
Surya also conveyed that the club “takes pride in the fact that we are based in a small town, but we are successful at the big festivals against clubs from New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.” (Prior to the pandemic, the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club had the experience of a lifetime, competing in the finals in Trinidad and Tobago.)
The size of the boats makes transporting them prohibitive, so the host club provides them for the festivals. There are several distances, and I asked Surya what times the paddlers aim for at each distance. He replied, “In the 200-meter sprints, we try to finish in about 1 minute, and our recent winning time was 1:03.” The next distance is a 500-meter race, and Saha said, “We try to finish in around 2:15,” and for the grueling 2,000-meter event, “We try to finish in 11 to 12 minutes.”
Surya and the rest of the group are looking forward to the next festival — The Independence Dragon Boat Festival in Philadelphia — and they will continue to train for the mid-August event. With an active membership base of 25-30 paddlers who show up regularly, the group can pull together competitors to show up and put forth a good showing.
Those interested in getting involved might be encouraged by these words on the club's Facebook page: “The IDBC is an all-inclusive club with no experience needed to join! We are a fun and friendly team of all ages that enjoys spending time on Ithaca's beautiful Cayuga Lake waters. Whether you're looking to be part of a competitive team or just want to have fun on the water, there is a place for you and your friends.”