Sharon Byrne Shaffer wants to get you excited about Dragon Boat Racing. The current president of the Gig Harbor Dragon Boat Club can’t say enough about how much fun she had as she recalled her first experience on the boat.
“I competed with a novice team from my Rotary Club. Novice means that we knew nothing. I didn’t even know how to hold the paddle,” she said. “I was beat up by the end of that race and exhausted. But, being in that boat with friends, I was instantly in love with dragon boats and wanted it here for our community.”
Dragon boat racing dates back more than 2,500 years to an area in Southern China. A vessel features paddlers working in unison, a steering operator and a drummer, whose beat helps synchronize the paddle strokes. Today, the U.S. is one of 74 nations that are members of the International Dragon Boat Federation.
Started just four years ago by the Canoe and Kayak Club, the Gig Harbor Dragon Boat Club now boasts more than 70 ‘Dragons,’ the majority of which practice year round. With help from The Gig Harbor Marina, PenMet Parks and many others, a 20-person boat was secured and the group was off and running.
“We operate as a true team, building our power together, supporting each other with common goals, welcoming all newcomers, building relationships, building muscle memory, sharing responsibility. It’s kind of like the very best of kindergarten all over again!” explained Sharon.
It quickly became popular, and last year two smaller 10-person boats were added, allowing the team to expand. The combination of fun, camaraderie and competition is appealing to many.
“We have a ton of fun together. We work hard in the boat; we tease each other and toss a bit of smack talk around. Beyond our shared travel to regional competitions, we gather for seasonal parties that are actually epic,” Sharon said.
The Dragons dressed up for Halloween, and on December 15 you’ll find them dressed in holiday costumes paddling through the harbor singing merriment and spreading holiday cheer.
Training is done five days a week in 90-minute sessions. Members can choose how often they want to paddle, but Sharon warns that once you try it you will be hooked. During the winter months, the training is scheduled around building up endurance. During the spring and summer season, it’s on to race readiness: race strategy, best form, race transitions, synchronicity and power.
While much of the team is competitive, you can also choose to be a recreational member. A youth program is also in place for ages 12 through 17, where skills are honed and teamwork is learned.
While some are just in it for recreation, a few paddlers have joined up with Washington Area Maters (WAM) to compete even more vigorously. Last year two went to world competitions in Hungary. Four more are working to qualify for international WAM team competitions.
“So, we are recreational, we are competitive in regional, national, international, and we are proud,” said Sharon.
In just four short years, the group has already taken home nine medals at regional races. Recent competitions include: Olympia, Tacoma, Lake Meridian at Kent, Seattle at Lake Union, False Creek in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., and Flathead Lake in Montana.
While the podium is always a welcomed accomplishment of the hard work put it, it’s the beautiful sunrise and sunset paddles around their local harbor that many find to be the very best part of being a Dragon.
“We have fun together on the water, we work hard together, we take care of each other and we challenge each other,” said Sharon. “Amazing people and dang good workouts in this gorgeous harbor of ours.”
Whether recreational or competitive, goals are regularly set by all members. Goals might be to nail the start, to smooth out a transition or to be perfectly synchronized. On personal levels, each has form and stroke pieces that are worked on individually.
“Right now my personal goal is to nail the catch in my stroke and use my legs and core for most power,” said Sharon.
As the group grows, it continues to be actively engaged in the community by partnering with the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak team for their Paddlers’ Cup. Members help them on the Dragon Boat race day by training the novice teams comprised of local businesses for a friendly day of competition.
In March, the second annual Dragon Flea Market will be held at the old Peninsula Gardens site. Money raised goes to covering boat and moorage expenses. All items are donated by team members and friends, and any items not sold are donated to local charities.
“Honestly, I have never been involved with a more wonderful bunch of folks,” said Sharon.
For a free introductory paddle, you can call Sharon at 253.208.4353. The Dragons provide both the portable flotation device and paddle. You’ll find the group gathering at the Pavilion at Skansie Brothers Park and boarding boats at Jerisich Dock.