It’s Dragon Boat time in Taiwan, and in most Chinese-speaking countries- a holiday commemorating the life and death of the legendary Chinese scholar Qu Yuan. Races are raced, rice dumplings are eaten, wine is drunk, and everyone enjoys a 4-day weekend. It’s kind of the unofficial start of summer here in Taiwan.
How did this all begin? According to one legend (China Highlights.com), Qu Yuan threw himself into a river and committed suicide…
“the local people were very sad, and rowed out on the river to search for his body, but were unable to find him. To preserve his body, the locals paddled their boats up and down the river, hitting the water with their paddles and beating drums to scare evil spirits away. They threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish, so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. An old Chinese doctor poured realgar wine into the river to poison the monsters and to protect Qu Yuan.”
Over the years, the paddling has evolved into Dragon Boat racing to the beat of the drums, the lumps of rice have become rice dumplings, and people now drink the wine instead of pouring it into the river…a wise decision.
A couple years ago, I almost paddled in the Dragon Boat race but was ejected from the “Foreign Devils” team boat a few weeks before the race when a few paddlers cancelled, making it impossible for the coaches to fill the two boats they’d originally planned. I was new in town, an unknown, and was booted from the boat before the first practice without even given a chance to plead my case!
Little did that “Foreign Devils’” coach know, I had extensive experience with this sort of thing – in outrigger canoe racing, the Hawaiian version of Dragon Boat racing.
The coach didn’t give me a chance to tell him the story of Na Wahine O Ka Kai, September 23rd, 2001…
In mid-August of 2001, a few crazy friends persuaded me to join a competitive padding team, Lanikai Canoe Club, to compete during the long-distance racing season. The season began with a 7-mile sprint race and ended with the world championship – Na Wahine O Ka Kai. This annual (and slightly insane) endurance race begins on the island of Molokai, crosses the Kiawi Channel and ends 42 miles later in Waikiki.
Teams consist of 10 paddlers, 6 in the canoe and the others following on an escort boat. Paddlers swap places every 30 minutes, with current paddlers jumping out the right side of the boat while their replacements hurl themselves into the canoe on the left side. This is done while the boat is still moving…in very rough seas. It’s not easy – it’s a physical and mental challenge!
On September 11, 2001, the world was stunned by the attacks on the world trade center. Working in aviation I was directly affected and, in the aftermath, I was laid off on September 21, exactly 2 days before the biggest race of my life. But I couldn’t even think about that, I had a race to focus on, so I slipped into a “denial” stage.
There were about 80 teams from around the world competing in the race, accompanied across the Kiawi Channel by helicopters patrolling the strait due to security concerns over 9/11. The noise of the hovering helicopters added to the challenge of communicating with teammates, hearing the call to switch sides while paddling.
Sometime about mid-race, I was on the escort boat eating a Snickers bar to keep up my energy, and the coach pointed at me and said “You, seat 2.” Then they dumped me into the water, all alone, a few hundred yards in front of the path of the canoe. My mission was to grab the moving canoe and hurl myself into seat 2 – the second seat from the front and slightly higher out of the water. Also, with a solo water change (rather than the usual 3-person change) the boat would not be slowing down. And the ocean swells were 8 to 10 feet.
As I floated in the water, alone except for the sharks lurking beneath me, and unable to see the approaching canoe because of the huge swells…I screamed. I screamed to get my adrenaline pumping and to scare away the sharks. I was terrified, so I screamed. If I missed that boat, or couldn’t hang on to the moving canoe, or didn’t have the physical strength to hurl myself into the boat, I was screwed. The escort boat would pick me up, the coach would scream, and we’d try it again. I just couldn’t let my team down.
Thanks to a massive adrenaline surge, or a huge fear of failure, I hurled myself into that boat! And we paddled on…
After almost 7 hours of paddling, we were finally approaching the island of Oahu just off Diamond Head point and I saw an airplane flying overhead with the distinctive red tail of a Northwest Airlines DC-10. Finally, my outrage at being laid off bubbled to the surface and overflowed, and I screamed obscenities at that big bird. And a short time later, as we finally arrived at the Hilton Hawaiian Village finish line, the rage and anger over losing my job turned into tears.
The race was over, we had done it and we had done well – 14th place overall with a respectable time of 7 hours and 18 minutes. Tears of exhaustion flowed because NOW I had to focus my life and on the fact that I was unemployed! My denial stage was over!
Many years later in another chapter of my life, watching the Dragon Boats racing through a lagoon in Nanliao, Taiwan, I flash back to that bittersweet day crossing the finish line in Hawaii. I think about how satisfying it would’ve been to paddle the “Foreigner Devils” team to a victory, or at least to get back in the boat again and feel the competitive surge of adrenaline!
But the coaches just wouldn’t listen…
Maybe next year?