Dragon boat transforms paddlers

The North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club gathers for a practice Tuesday at the Oak Harbor Marina.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
The North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club gathers for a practice Tuesday at the Oak Harbor Marina.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

After Dan Tonge steps into the dragon boat, he listens for his coach to the give the call and for the cadence of the paddles pounding the water.

“That’s my cue to lean forward and get in sync,” he said.

Tonge is blind and has been involved with dragon boat racing, a 2,000-year-old sport traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, for five years.

Paddlers race to a drummer’s beat in a long, narrow boat decorated with a dragon’s head and tail at the bow and stern.

Oak Harbor’s North Puget Sound Dragon Boat Club has been racing competitively for three years, and is the only club of its kind on Whidbey Island.

Like Tonge, many of the racers have stories of overcoming challenges to become the powerful athletes they are today.

At Tuesday’s practice, a woman who once had polio dropped her crutches off on the dock before climbing aboard. Several of the teammates are cancer survivors, and a majority of the members are seniors. The oldest paddler is more than 80 years of age.

Coach Suzanne Marter said she’s seen the way races can transform people. While certain competitive sports can be alienating for some, dragon boat racing invites paddlers of all ages, genders and experience.

Marter joined a recreational team in Portland, Ore. after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but was drawn to the sport’s competitive side. She eventually raced on the U.S. national team at the world championship, earning a gold medal in China.

“My 75-year-old teammate said, ‘I want to be buried with this’,” Marter said, of the award. “She had never been an athlete before that.”

Today, Marter is leading Oak Harbor’s team in weekly training runs as the team prepares to race in at least three events this year.

She sat at the bow of the 48-foot-long boat during Tuesday’s practice, with a portable microphone, for a peaceful evening on the water. If the wind picks up above 10 knots, the team is forced to cancel practice because of one-foot waves.

The club will compete in senior and cancer survivor races in Kent, Seattle and Portland this year. Last season, the team took home two gold medals and had two second-place finishes.

Marter said the team has made a big impact in its short history, at one point beating a team that’s existed for 15 years.

The team is also impressing relatives. During the summer, many paddlers bring their grandchildren to the Oak Harbor Marina for a try at the boat.

“The kids get excited and say it looks like fun,” Marter said. “Afterwards they say, ‘Grandma, I didn’t know you could do that. I’m really tired.’”

Dragon boat racing is a fast-growing water sport in the U.S. and the Oak Harbor team has built up 40 members. New guests are invited for Thursday and Saturday practices.

The season stretches from March until November.

“When I first heard about this sport, I thought, ‘I could do that.’” Tonge said. “I like all the friendship and camaraderie. They tease you and it’s a lot of fun.”

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