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It's Not Rowing, It's Dragon Boat Racing. How A Chinese Tradition Got To LA

A woman holding a paddle with a T-shaped handle sits at the front of a dragon boat. Crew members are seated behind her. Other boats are seen in the background with paddlers and a coach in a white t-shirt standing up in one of the boats.
Patricia Salazar coaches and steers members of the junior segment of Team DPW during an early morning practice at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale, Calif., on September 18, 2021.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
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When your chosen sport involves cramming yourself and 19 other hard-paddling athletes two-by-two in a long narrow boat, with one more steering in the back and another banging a drum up front — a pandemic with social distancing precautions can put a crimp in your dragon boat stroke.

While the pandemic was dragging on, dragon boat racing was suspended. But this weekend, it’s back. And Nathan Salazar, head coach of the Los Angeles County Dragon Boat Club, couldn’t be happier.

“Some of us members are competitive, but it's the whole team in general where we just enjoy a good food barbecue at the park and then we go to race and then we look forward to another snack, you know, throughout the day,” he said. “So that's why I believe that this sport caters to everyone, everyone and anyone, to be honest.”

Nathan Salazar of Team DPW coaches paddlers during an early morning practice at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale, CA on September 18, 2021.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist))
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As proof, one of the teams competing in Saturday’s Los Angeles County Dragon Boat Festival will be a group of Salazar’s own relatives.

The festival runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. along the shore of the swim lake at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale. Cars pay $12 each for entry to the park.

A few weeks ago Salazar talked me into climbing into one of the boats early on a Friday morning for one of his Team DPW training sessions.

I’d never been in a dragon boat before, but had seen them practicing around Naples Island in Long Beach a few times.

Bottom line, it’s easy to learn, you get an intense full-body workout and the team was very welcoming, and supportive of a new paddler.

Ancient Chinese Tradition Gets A Foothold In SoCal

Close-up image of dragon's head painted bright yellow and green with a red tongue that adorns a dragon boat. A bridge is seen in the background.
During competitions, dragon boats are adorned with a colorful dragon's head fitted on the bow, like this one seen at the European Dragon Boat Championship in Seville, Spain in August 2019.
(Lucía Hernández

Dragon boat racing and festivals go back centuries, the story goes, commemorating the search for the body of Qu Yuan, a poet and minister who got crosswise with the ruling powers and drowned himself in 278 BC. The sport came to California in 1983 when Shanghai gifted three dragon boats to San Diego; a competition was held there and the winning team went on to win an international competition, the first team outside of Asia to do so.

Each boat is adorned with a carved wooden dragon head — with bulging eyes and sharp teeth — that’s fitted into a slot at the bow, a long tail at the stern, and painted dragon scales. The head and tail are only brought out during competitions; during practices, like the one I attended, they’re stored away for safekeeping. During races, a drummer sits up front beating out the tempo set by the strongest paddlers — check it out in this video:

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The sport has grown — a state association of dragon boat paddlers has some 900 members, so it could still be considered a niche sport. Today, there are dragon boats and teams in many of our local bodies of water. Long Beach, Castaic Lake, L.A. Harbor at Cabrillo Beach, Santa Fe Dam, and so on.

L.A. County placed some of the dragon boats at Santa Fe Dam, and Salazar’s club, the Los Angeles County Dragon Boat Club, practices racing them every Friday, Saturday and Sunday starting at 7 a.m. sharp.

It’s Not Rowing, It’s Dragon Boat (There's A Difference)

When you first sit in a dragon boat, weighted down with 10 to 20 paddlers, the boat feels very stable, not at all tippy, and it slices smoothly through the water as we push away from the dock. We do a few warm-up circles of the island in the Santa Fe Dam reservoir and soon we’re ready for a few speedy race sets.

Unlike rowing, where you sit facing the back of the boat and pull an oar to move forward, in dragon boat paddling you face forward, with one or two paddlers on each hard wooden seat (some people sit on little cushions). You hold the paddle about a hand’s width up from the flare of the paddle with your outer hand, and the other hand is on top of the T-shaped handle. On each stroke, you dig the paddle down to your pinkie finger, then apply pressure with your entire body, legs, hips, core and arms to complete the stroke.

Salazar is leading one boat and co-coach Steve Evans is in a second boat. They carefully line up the boats, Evans calls out, “We have alignment,” and then he yells, “GO!!”

Immediately, on our boat, Salazar is counting out the strokes and we paddlers follow his count, digging the paddles into the water to our pinkies and pulling through to our hips. It’s surprising how fast the boat can gallop forward when everybody is slicing their paddle into the water at the same instant.

Four long boats carrying multiple seated rowers are shown on the water in the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.
Members of Team DPW paddle on the race course set up inside the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area during an early morning practice in Irwindale, CA on September 18, 2021. Team DPW was originally founded by members who worked in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works but now includes members from other occupations including social workers and law enforcement.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Now, we’re racing the other boat. They get ahead a bit, Salazar is calling out to us to “walk it up, walk it up,” which is dragon boat jargon for gaining on the other boat a bit at a time. And although we are paddling fast, a slower cadence with strokes that apply more pressure to the water can move us forward more effectively.

At 250 meters, and less than two minutes of intense effort, we hit the finish line and ease up. High fives and congratulations all around, we won that race. But Salazar isn’t one to offer a lot of rest.

His crew will repeat this intense, race-like set a dozen times over the course of the morning as they work to synchronize their strokes, and to use their legs and core as well as their arms.

“I'd rather that you die on each set than thinking of finishing practice,” he jokes. Of course when you’re on a boat, you can’t really quit practice, short of making everybody go back to the dock to drop you off.

Paddling From Manila Bay To L.A.

Salazar grew up racing dragon boats in the Philippines.

Manila Bay — that's (where) I started, Manila, then I moved here in 2000,” he said. By 2006 he had formed his own team of fellow employees of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. They call themselves Team DPW.

The team grew into a club of many teams, some made up of police, firefighters, other public employees, as well as random community members. One team that competes locally is made up of breast cancer survivors.

It’s very accommodating to anyone, age, religion, and gender doesn't matter
— Nathan Salazar, head coach, Team DWP

The second day I came out to the lake, a Saturday, Salazar recruited an entire troop of Scouts to paddle along with their parents. They filled two boats with first time paddlers.

He’s recruiting new paddlers all the time.

“Every time I go to the mall or eat somewhere, I sit next to another stranger. I just share the sport,” he said.

Junior paddler Roger Molina of team DPW poses for a photo after an early morning practice at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

He says the sport is very inclusive — it has to be to fill up a boat that can carry 20.

It’s very accommodating to anyone, age, religion, and gender doesn't matter,” he said.

In fact, a 3-year-old boy was on the boat with us. He wasn’t paddling, but his mother said she had been on the team since before he was born, and she kept paddling through her pregnancy.

U.S. Junior National Team

One of Salazar’s recruits is Roger Molina, 17, a senior at Schurr High in Montebello. Molina has been racing dragon boats since he was a freshman. His first time, he says he was a bit overwhelmed.

I was kind of lost, I guess, but I went on the boat,” he said. “It was just really different from other sports that I played. But I enjoyed it. I mean, I like trying new things. So it was really exciting.”

On shore, Roger’s mom, Daftne Molina, says it was a challenge finding a sport Roger liked back in 2018.

Members of Team DPW lift dragon boats out of the water after an early morning practice at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

He said, Mommy, you put me in the sports I don't like — football, baseball. And I said, yeah, but you need to be active,” she said.

She took her three sons to try it out. All three still paddle, but for Roger, this was his sport. It was outdoors, competitive but also cooperative, where everybody works as one.

So he loved it the first day. He loves it,” his mother said.

Dragon boat paddling in a club like this is free for the first few visits. Adults pay $50 to $100 a year, depending on the race schedule, and the club provides the boats as well as life vests and paddles. Some members do buy their own equipment.

And while many are satisfied to do dragon boat paddling for exercise and the occasional local competition, there are travel opportunities and elite international competitions.

“When you're racing another country for a world championship level, you know, it's like the Olympics,” he said. “So we walk on the opening ceremony with a jacket, you know, a team uniform.”

Dragon boat racing was a demonstration event in the Tokyo Olympic Games in August, a first step toward possibly including it as an official sport in a future Olympics.

Salazar is head coach of the U.S. National Juniors team of athletes ages 12 to 18, and they have traveled to Las Vegas, San Diego and Thailand. During the pandemic, with social distancing mandates, Salazar obtained lots of one-person boats for the kids to continue practicing over the past year, to keep everybody fit.

“On June 15, when California opened up, we were able to get back in the dragon boats. But the whole time we were training,” Salazar said.

Soon after joining the sport, Roger Molina made it onto the U.S. National Juniors team. He hopes that might help him get into a college that has a dragon boat team and compete for a college level championship.

The UC’s — UCLA, UC Berkeley or UC Irvine, have teams that I'm interested in joining,” he said.

Before the pandemic canceled most races, Roger traveled to Thailand with the team. And he’s looking for those dragon boats to take him even farther.

Members of Team DPW paddle during an early morning practice at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Corrected October 4, 2021 at 10:05 AM PDT
A previous version of this story misidentified Roger Molina in a photo caption. LAist regrets the error.