It is a endeavor requiring teamwork and strength.
Each boat carries a team of 22, with 10 paddlers to a side. In the back, a steersman guides the boat. In the front, a drummer sets the pace and keeps the paddlers in sync.
“Originally, I wanted to be the drummer," said Lauren Jiang, president of the high school club, the Alameda Fishstix. "Then someone explained to me I had to learn to paddle first. So I did, and thought it was pretty fun.”
“It’s a sport but there isn’t practice every single day," said Junior Christina West, who has been paddling since her freshman year. "It's fun and social, too."
One of the advantages of dragon boat racing is fitness. Jiang says she’s improved her arm strength, and West says paddling strengthens the core muscles. “You’re holding the paddle with your arms, but you’re using your stomach and back," she said.
The team has five adult coaches, including Jiang’s father, David Jiang, who also races dragon boats. During practice, the coaches steer, but the team has one student, Justin Tong, who is a qualified steersman.
Tong, who is a senior, says it is a challenge to pass the steersman certification exam.
“There’s a written portion, and you’ve got to know your safety rules, your water rules, your commands like 'hold water,' which tells the athletes to put their paddles in to slow the boat," he said. "You have to have all your commands memorized.”
Once students pass the written exam, they have to show they can use their knowledge in real time. “You sit on a boat and demonstrate that you can steer it," he said.
The Alameda High team is gearing up for its first race of the 2011 season April 16 on Lake Merritt, one of the three or four they'll compete in this year.
“We didn’t do so well last year, we just didn’t have enough people," said Lauren Jiang. "Though we did win one division. It was E division, though. A is the best, then B, C …”
“We were the best of the worst!” said West, with a smile.
“But we have a promising team this year," Jiang said. "And we've been practicing.”