Take a Ride with the People Who Paddle

People who paddle

“Finish! Finish! Finish!”

Coach Roula Bland shouted the command as we bent to our task: Paddles stabbing water then pulling back hard to try and win the race with a second boat.

We lost.

But that’s okay because what a win to be on Lake Washington this sunny day, with stunning views of mountains, sky, and blue, blue water. Sailboats billowed past as plate-sized turtles sunbathed on a log boom.

This was Dragon Boat 101, sponsored by the Seattle SAKE Paddling Club. Offering free, introductory outings for beginners, the club promotes the well-being, safety, training, and fitness of people who paddle.

As we newbies lined up in two rows on a Lake Washington dock, Coach Roula Bland explained how to move the 40-foot boat from a dead stop. Holding the single paddle up with straight arms, we’re told to reach forward and to the side. Then, with a hip rotation, we lower the paddle for the stroke back, keeping eyes up while moving in unison with paddlers in front.

We gingerly entered the dragon boats for an on-board lesson in this ancient Chinese sport that goes back more than 2,000 years. Now a popular international racing sport, the standard crew consists of 20 paddlers, paired up and facing front. At the bow sits a person who uses drumming or voice calls to issue commands to paddlers. In the rear, a steersperson or tiller uses a long  attached oar to steer the boat, and also shouts commands.

Our boats were white, but come race days, they don colorful regalia, with the head of a dragon at the bow, a tail aft, and often, stylistic scales painted on the side.

We spent more than an hour practicing fast, slow, and stop paddling, while learning commands, my favorite being “let it run,” where the paddle rests on the boat’s edge. “Paddles up” prepares for the first stroke. “Finish, finish, finish” is a war cry to pick up the pace.

Head coach at the Seattle SAKE Paddling Club for the last seven years, Bland issues instructions with a charming Australian accent. She paddled for Australia in the 2004 Asian Title races, and both paddled and coached in Prague during the 2009 World Title races, as well as Macau in 2010. “Besides the camaraderie, travel is one of the things I most enjoy about the sport,” she says. “I’ve been to China, Thailand, Canada and Europe.”

Another appeal is accessibility. “It’s an easy entry-level sport for any level of fitness,” Bland notes. “There’s less impact on the joints, especially the knees.”

This makes dragon boating attractive to older adults, as reflected in the club’s membership, ranging in age from the 20s well into the 80s. Club board member and competitor Sandy Chock-Eng, 74, raced in Canada earlier this year and hopes to compete in Italy in 2024. “I got into it by accident about six years ago,” she says. “One of my friends suggested we try it, and I took to it immediately.”

She’s a self-described “water person” who grew up in Hawaii paddling outriggers. “With dragon boats, it took about a year to really get the timing, the reach, and the flexibility down.”

Besides racing, the club also offers recreational dragon boating, standup paddle boarding, and outrigger canoeing. “We take all abilities,” says Chock-Eng. “We’re very accepting and that’s what I love about our group. It’s welcoming. One of our goals is this notion of care.”

For instance, there’s a Survivor SAKE team, an effort of Team Survivor Northwest, which offers programs for women cancer survivors. The SAKE team paddles for fun, but also enjoys competitive racing.

Chock-Eng was on the receiving end of the club’s support last fall when she couldn’t paddle after shoulder surgery. “It was around Christmas and Roula arranged this ‘princess paddle’ for me and another member. They put us in the back, paddled into a cove, and we had doughnuts, Christmas treats and hot chocolate.”

There are many moments to be savored in a sport that’s both fast and furious as well as contemplative. “Sometimes we’ll go out as the sun is setting,” Chock-Eng says. “The water is like glass. Mount Rainier shines in the distance. You just can’t beat that.”

If you go

The Seattle SAKE Paddling Club (ClubSake.com) offers free Dragon Boat 101 lessons in the spring and summer. During fall and winter, beginners may participate in weekend paddles on Lake Washington. For more information, email info@clubsake.com.

Connie McDougall is a former news reporter and current freelance writer of nonfiction and personal essays. She lives in Seattle.

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