On a warm Friday morning in the Sparks Marina, a drummer sits perched in front of a double hull canoe softly pounding away as a GWN Dragon Boat designated steerer in the back of the boat yells, “Paddles up!” and 16-20 rowers raise their oars. The double-hulled canoe slowly drifts forward until the steerer says “Hold the boat!” and everyone inherently knows to stick their paddles in the water.
This motley crew of local media people all in a boat working together was a precursor to the Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival held at the Sparks Marina on Aug. 17, where teams of 16-20 paddlers of all abilities gathered to try to beat each other out in the water.
In the last few years, the Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival has had anywhere from 18 to 22 teams. The course is 400 meters long and three heats of three teams compete against each other; races are about 2-3 minutes long. Many local businesses compete as well as teams that come from the Bay Area and other parts of Nevada.
Every boat has a drummer in the front (which is usually the boss of a company or someone who has past rhythm experience who acts as the coach and cheerleader) and a steerer in the back who barks commands to keep the boat moving in the right direction. When not racing, participants tend to hang out in near the food trucks, beer tent, and exhibitor booths filled with other fitnessminded people.
This is GWN Dragon Boat’s third time at the Sparks Marina, and partners with Immunize Nevada to help facilitate the annual fun and friendly team-building event. Based in Canada, GWN Dragon Boat hosts 12-15 races per year worldwide and the Sparks Marina is one of its premier event locations.
America Davis attended her first Dragon Boat Race in 2018 as a paddler on the Immunize Nevada team before joining the Immunize Nevada staff.
“I heard about it through the radio and then saw that Immunize Nevada was looking for paddlers to join their team. I knew (Executive Director) Heidi Parker through mutual friends so my sister, cousins and I all paddled together. It’s fun because you don’t need to be an expert or an athlete to do it- just get 15-20 friends and have a good time at the marina,” she says.
Davis goes running around the Sparks Marina a lot, but the Dragon Boat races is one of the few times when she actually gets out on the water. And now being more involved with Immunize Nevada, Davis is grateful that GWN has chosen the nonprofit as its beneficiary and jointly help promote health and wellness. The race organizers also feel supported by the City of Sparks and feel that they see the value in hosting the internationally renowned race series.
After participating in two boat rides around the Sparks Marina, GWN boat steerer Donald Lee also shares what he thinks about Northern Nevada compared to dragon boat races in the rest of the world.
“This is a nice dry environment. Last weekend we were in Richmond, Virginia, and it was very humid. Here there’s awesome scenery; Canada (where GWN hosts the world championships) is relatively flat and you never get this,” he says, gesturing towards the Sierra Nevada.
Paddling for 23 years and involved with GWN since 2003, Lee has been on thousands of boats and attended hundreds of races. His favorite part about being on a boat is “seeing a team change from not really moving the boat to moving the boat really fast by the end of the practice.”
However, paddlers can’t get too excited after winning a race because one false move can cause a team to go from first to last.
“Teams will win a race and throw their hands up which is one of the worst things you can do because it throws off the weight and can flip the boat. They may have won the race but then they’ll get a time penalty that will push them down in the rankings,” Lee says.
However, flipping a dragon boat is rare and as long as the crew listens to the drummer and the steerer, then the paddlers can row quite fast.
“There’s a lot of comradery and some goodnatured goading but it’s all in good fun,” Davis smiles.
Some teams that won the grand final in their divisions in the 2019 Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival include the Sparkanians, DragonMax, the Power Crew of NV Energy, and the Herding SheDragons. For more information about GWN Dragon Boat and Northern Nevada race results, visit https://www.gwndragonboat.com.