The unofficial team motto? Paddle fast so we can eat.

The Lightwave dragon boat sets out from Bair Island into San Francisco Bay for practice. Peter Cockerell photo.

A refreshing sea breeze blows inland, a welcome respite from the glaring summer sun. As we warm up stiff joints and aching muscles with an increasingly difficult routine of stretches, a chorus of groans and mumbled complaints rises from my fellow dragon boaters for the day, an eclectic mix of muscled veterans in waterproof gear and enthusiastic first-timers in T-shirts.

Stretch today for a better tomorrow. Peter Cockerell photo.

I am one of these first-timers, eager to give the sport a try after stumbling across the Redwood City Lightwave team Meetup page, which welcomes beginners. Coming out was as easy as donning a hat and sunscreen — paddles, life vests, and dragon boats are provided — and the sunny August morning saw a purportedly rare full boat.

I try not to appear terrified as I step cautiously into the long, narrow boat and head for the very last row, where I am squeezed up against another paddler in the same cramped position taken by our 18 boatmates in the nine rows ahead of us. The tight quarters already setting off alarm bells, I swallow anxiously as we push off from shore. All too soon, I find my arms engaged in a rapid stroke far faster and far more intense than I could have imagined, and I wonder if my sleeve can get any more soaked with cold, salty bay water. My out-of-shape arms burning and chest heaving, I look at my watch in despair — it’s only been 5 minutes, and I’ve somehow got to continue for another 115 under the watchful gaze of the coach towering behind me from his perch on the stern.

Lightwave, one of about 35 dragon boat teams in the Bay Area, is comprised of a group of dedicated athletes who, without fail, train on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings at Redwood City’s Bair Island Aquatic Center. The team is just one of tens of thousands internationally engaged in this competitive water sport, which grew out of an ancient folk ritual in southern China and involves festooning a carbon fiber boat with decorative dragon heads and tails. (The decorations are for races only, as is the presence of a drummer seated at the front of the boat pounding out the rhythm of the oar strokes.) While a majority of California Dragon Boat Association members are Asian American, only half of the Lightwavers are, as far as I can tell.

Boats in racing regalia with drummers at the 2016 DC Dragon Boat Festival. Photo by Kyle Tsui.

San Francisco resident Jessica Li started paddling with Lightwave 11 years ago, having never played sports. She told me Lightwave has been around for 22 years.

“We started as a novice team — a corporate team for Oracle — and then we were one of the only ones to actually become a full-time competitive recreational team,” Li said. “So we’ve been around since the very beginning of dragon boating in the Bay Area.”

The team, which is said to have been named for an Oracle product, slowly transitioned from a novice team (one that trains no more than three times a year) to a year-round team no longer affiliated with the company. Since then, the team has accumulated many a medal from around the U.S., most recently winning gold in the women’s division and silver in the mixed division of the Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival. With only half its crew present, Lightwave combined with Vancouver-based team Max Storm to become Max Storm Wave, collectively competing in a 500-meter course.

“We got in the boat and we just meshed,” Li said. “That made medalling just that much more sweet, because we had never paddled together before. It’s all about teamwork.”

Back in the Bay, folks in one team will know folks from another team, and the sense of community is apparent at the six or so local races that happen each year. Within Lightwave, teammates lunch together after practice each week and put on several team bonding events annually, including bowling, karaoke, corn mazes, trivia nights and pumpkin carving.

Photo by Peter Cockerell

“One time we went to SF Opera at the Ballpark, and we were featured on the jumbotron! That was fun,” Li told me over email. “Other memorable events would have to be the weddings. We’ve had team members meet, paddle, fall in love, and get married!”

So while winning races is of importance to the team, the communal aspect is what really allows paddlers to come together.

“I moved here in 2012, and Lightwave was the very first friends I had; since then they’ve turned into family,” said Michelle Hattan, a co-captain of the team. “I work a corporate job and I like to think it’s 9 to 5, but it’s oftentimes a few more hours than that, and I love that I have an excuse twice a week to forget all of that.”

After what feels like eons, the coach permits us to take a water break, and sighs of relief rise up all around me. My sleeve soaked, hair tousled beyond repair and legs burning (weird, right?), I take a gulp of water, only to discover that the Bay has found its way into my bottle. Oh well, anything to soothe my dry throat.

The coach stands fore and the sweep, who steers, stands aft. Peter Cockerell photo.

If I’m honest, I completely underestimated how difficult dragon boating would be. My only other water sporting experience had been kayaking, which seemed similar enough to dragon boating. There was a boat, there were paddles — how different could they be? But my first outing was proving a rude wake-up call.

After a few blessed minutes it was oars back in the water, we started again. Dragon boat veteran Alan Layug, who stood at the tip of the boat, coached us on the basics: Always lean forward at the start of the stroke, reaching as far forward as you can with the paddle. Look forward to keep in rhythm, make an “A” shape with your arms and avoid making the “chicken wing” shape, unless you want to be in pain for days.

“If you didn’t regard yourself as an athlete before, you are one now,” the tanned coach said emphatically.

He also reminded veterans of the team goal to lose five pounds per person — a difference of 100 pounds collectively — in preparation for their next race. The coach would send out a workout regimen, and the team would work toward the difficult goal through a (shared, at least) experience of pain and suffering.

For the next hour and a half I pushed my body farther than I knew it could go. Thankfully, the coaches were lenient in letting us beginners take breaks whenever we wanted, and the veteran paddlers shouted words of encouragement to us newbies even as they struggled themselves.

Despite the agony that my arms were in, it was easy to laugh as I inadvertently splashed water (a classic rookie mistake due to incorrect technique) into the boat, enjoyed scenic wetland views that I had never seen while speeding down 101 and bonding with my seatmate Pavitra, a Redwood City resident and fellow first-timer. She makes rounds at various Meetup events, and had been meaning to paddle with Lightwave for a while.

Smiles to go around. Peter Cockerell photo.

“In the beginning I was just splashing water,” Pavitra said with a laugh. But the supportive team environment meant she didn’t feel left behind, and Pavitra intends to return when her muscles recover.

Li vehemently encourages anyone on the fence about trying dragon boating to bite the bullet.

“I woulds say come out and try it!” Li said. “You get a full-body workout, you’re out on the water with gorgeous weather, it beats the gym and you get to hang out with 19 of your friends. It’s just a blast.”

My take? You will wake up with aches in muscles that you didn’t know existed before. You will be in awe of the extent of physical human endurance. But you’ll also experience a sense of unity and harmonic collaboration that only comes with being crammed in a narrow boat displacing thousands of gallons of water with people you’ve never met before. So I say, give it a try.

Peter Cockerell photo.

Dragon boat–curious? Jump in on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening practice via the Redwood City Lightwave Dragon Boating Meetup.

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Emma Cockerell

Passionate about social impact, journalism, China, and economics. Looking to pursue economic and litigation consulting after graduation.

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