Since 2014, the dragon boats of the East Bay Rough Riders, a youth dragon boating team home to students from Berkeley High School (BHS) and El Cerrito High School (ECHS), have flitted across the iridescent water of the Berkeley Marina. What are they in it for? Friendship, sunsets, and seals.
The team was officially founded by Coach Lawrence Pang, a math teacher at ECHS. The sport of dragon boating first originated over 2,500 years ago in China. Every year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar is the Dragon Boat Festival, known as Duan wu Jie. The most common myth regarding the origins of this holiday involves a poet named Qu Yuan. After learning that his kingdom (from which he had been exiled) had been conquered by another kingdom, Qu Yuan committed suicide by wading into a river. People raced to the location in boats upon hearing this, but they were too late. This tradition became the dragon boat races of today.
Nowadays, dragon boating is popular not only in its original home of China, but worldwide. Members of the team are drawn to dragon boating for a number of reasons.
Seals, “just hanging about,” are spotted routinely at practices, said team captain Paikea Melcher, who has been dragon boating since the age of ten. When a seal is spotted, almost everyone drops what they are doing to look. Everyone stops paddling and expressions of fascination echo up and down the boat.
“[In] what other sports can you just hang out with seals, fish, and manta rays? We saw a shark once,” said Melcher. Pang was quick to point out that the boat wasn’t about to get bitten in two by a great white shark however. “A small one… No danger,” he emphasized, while remembering the experience.
In addition, the sunsets are absolutely stunning. While in May the sun sets too early to be seen sinking below the horizon, in the winter months, boatmates get to witness sunsets on the open water, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge. “You feel like you’re part of the sunset, you can see all the bridges, sunsets, it looks like there’s a glow stick poured out onto the water. It makes you feel good, at peace,” said Izzy Dalla, a senior at ECHS.
The team usually races 500 meters or 1500 meters, though other race distances, both longer and shorter, do exist. The team practices two main strokes: aggressive and thrust. Aggressive strokes involve leaning forward while paddling. These strokes are less efficient, but faster overall. The team will typically paddle aggressively for the first dozen strokes or so during a race to accelerate. The team will then transition to thrust strokes, where the paddlers use their full body to paddle in a back and forth motion.
Dragon boating depends on the team’s ability to paddle in rhythm. Therefore, the sport puts an emphasis on teamwork instead of any individual’s performance. “If one person can paddle super hard and can go super fast, if no one else can keep up with them, it’s better for them to match the rest of the team. It’s really a whole lot about teamwork…We’ll always put our people and our paddlers before how well we score,” said Melcher. As such, the team’s culture reflects this. “We take each person as they are and push them further… We’re just all here to improve each other together,” said Vivian Huang, a senior at ECHS.
Since the team was founded in 2014, its members have always put people and relationships above competition. Mia Skoble, a junior in AC, said, “We like to say we’re first in friendship, and I’d rather be first in friendship than come first in any race.”