Dragon Boat racers beat summer heat

By Steve Mosco

Amid the blazing heat of summer in the city, the 22nd annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival launched Saturday and Sunday on Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, with more than 180 teams vying for cash, prizes and the honor of claiming this year’s U.S. Dragon Boat Open Championship.

The races kept up the age-old tradition of racing in colorful, custom-made teak boats, which glide across the water led by the snarling head of a dragon. The boats, piloted by up to 20 crewman with 18 paddlers, a drummer and a steers person, weigh 1 ton each — making pulling the boats across Meadow Lake quite the labor-intensive task.

“These boats are so incredibly heavy — nothing like the fiberglass boats most racers are used to,” said Bill Wong, coach of the NY Wall Street Dragons. “Paddlers have to be on top of the game in terms of teamwork and they absolutely must have the heart of a competitor.”

Wong said even the most technically proficient paddlers tend to have difficulty getting used to a race such as this.

“A lot of the younger paddlers think they can just jump into a boat and start rowing like a machine,” he said. “It’s not that simple. It’s a tough race and the competition is real and ready.”

Competition away from the water was evident, but not as fierce. Tens of thousands gathered at the foot of the Verizon Stage, competing for prime spots on the grass as they feasted on the multicultural cuisine offered by dozens of vendors. If one craved a pork bun with a side of paella and buttery ear of corn, this was the place to make it happen.

Connie Franklin, a self-described race enthusiast and homemaker from Long Island, said she never misses the annual event, even as the temperature flirts with the century mark.

“I’ve got my hat, my sunglasses, my sunblock — I was here yesterday and I’ll be here until the end today,” said the Bayside resident. “This is such a fascinating culture.”

And besides the action on the lake, festival Chairman Henry Wan said the celebration of culture is really what brings the Dragon Boat revelers together.

“This is a grand celebration of Queens, the most culturally diverse place in the world,” he said. “I love planning this event every year because I see how much everyone enjoys it. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to start planning for the 2013 race.”

Wan will not be alone in getting ready for next year’s race at the close of this year’s events. Dragon boaters fresh from the water exhaled deeply, marveling at how much hard work goes into each and every stroke.

As she climbed out of her teak boat, Julie Kwong said the race was draining, yet exhilarating.

“It was really exciting being out there,” said the Flushing resident, who was not sure how the team fared in the competition. “We train all year, then it’s over in a flash.”

DCH Racing took top honors in the overall championship race, placing first ahead of second-place DCH Racing II and third-pace Lake Mercer DCH Racing.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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