A partnership forged on the island promotes the sport of dragon boating
In late winter, a team of dragons will sail into Galveston.
For years, the Houston Heat Dragon Boat Club has used Galveston waters to practice the ancient sport of dragon boating, and now a partnership with an island paddle board organization is helping the tradition expand across Texas.
The water in Galveston is especially conducive to this kind of partnership, Vicky Tonn of Island Paddle said.
“It’s always great for some type of training,” Tonn said.
Tonn and Houston Heat Vice President Jeff Gee partnered two years ago to bring the first all-paddle event to Galveston.
Called Battle on the Bay, the competition includes stand-up paddle, dragon boat, kayak and canoe races.
Now, members of both groups share sports and the Galveston waters, Gee said.
“I try to get my dragon boat paddlers on the stand-up,” Gee said. “It’s two different mentalities but using the same techniques.”
Modern dragon boat racing developed over the past 20 or 30 years, but the tradition stretches back 1,000 years, Gee said.
Teams of 20 race over various distances. Each dragon boat usually includes a steerer and a drummer to keep time for the paddlers.
In China, where the sport is more popular, teams can grow much larger, Gee said.
The effort to popularize dragon boat racing stemmed from an effort to promote Asian culture, Albert Wong, Houston Heat president and founding member, said.
Learning the dragon boat paddling technique is all about teamwork, he said.
“You’re as strong as your weakest paddler,” Wong said.
When paddlers travel to another part of the country or world, they’re expected to adapt their stroke to that of the local team, he said.
“Our team’s paddle stroke has evolved over the years,” Wong said. “Anytime you travel to another part of the country and you want to paddle with a different team, you’ve got to blend in.”
This is why cross-training with Island Paddle is so beneficial to dragon boat racers, Tonn said.
“For me, it’s definitely both challenging and meditative,” Tonn said. “You get in a rhythm. You’re out in the elements. It’s just a way to meditate with nature.”
Working in a dragon boat team helps her become a better paddler, Tonn said.
The focus on working together and developing bonds makes the partnership with Island Paddle a natural extension, Gee said.
“As soon as you step on land and get off the boat, you’re part of a huge family,” Gee said.
This is the reason a lot of paddlers get involved, team member Heather Mercado said.
“Your dragon boat team, a lot of times, becomes your family,” Mercado said.
A Houston Heat member, Mercado paddled for Team USA at the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships in September, helping the team win the most overall medals.
This community focus is helping the sport grow in Texas, Houston Heat member Ha Nguyen said. She also rowed with Team USA in September.
In 2018, the American team included 25 Texans, Nguyen said.
“This is the first time they recruited a lot of people from Texas,” Nguyen said.
In fact, the sport is growing across the continent. The International Dragon Boat Federation estimates 90,000 participants in the United States and Canada.
The United States has about 120 teams, according to the websites of the four United States Dragon Boat Federation regions.
Gee and Tonn would like to eventually develop a formal Texas racing series, they said. The open-water conditions of Galveston are attractive to paddlers, so they anticipate Battle on the Bay will only continue to grow, they said.