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How to plunge into Paddling

By Lisa Nuss

If you’ve seen those dragon boat festivals and outrigger canoe races that seem to be everywhere now and thought it looked like fun – I have good news. Even if you’ve never paddled before, there is a recreational team out there for you.

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Drums of the Dragon Boat
I started on a Portland women lawyers’ dragon boat team. Teams organize around occupations, or companies, or age (youth and seniors, e.g.). There are clubs for every level of experience, so go online and search for groups in your area.

You don’t need fancy gear as long as its mild weather — shorts and a T-shirt, with sturdy water shoes are usually fine. A pair of neoprene gloves is worth the investment.

Most dragon boat teams practice in long, skinny “Hong Kong style” boats – two to a bench. You only paddle one side (left or right). Right off the bat they’ll teach you the stroke technique: stretch forward, twist away from the water and reach again to get your outside arm as far away as possible so when you plant that paddle into the water and pull back, you push the boat as far forward as possible.

They cut me some slack as a newbie, but this is not a leisure sport. They expect you to push yourself – hard. The reward is an awesomely toned torso, and the drug-free high you get when the endorphins kick in as you enjoy the beautiful view of the city skyline.

Portland holds the famous Rose Festival dragon boat races every June, where the teams paddle in the ceremonial wooden boats from China with the giant dragon heads. The races are just a quick four minute sprint to the finish line.

I loved being out on the water, but the jab-jab-jabbing of the dragon boat paddling style made me feel like I was jack hammering away at the water. At the paddling competitions, I’d been eying the Outrigger canoes – six people sitting in a line, paddling on both sides, and it didn’t seem so frenetic. So I jumped ship.

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Easygoing Outrigger
Outrigger canoeing is a Pacific Island tradition and the atmosphere around the whole sport is very relaxed. Many Northwest teams include some native Hawaiians, who grew up paddling and help keep the sport authentic on the mainland.

The competitions begin with ceremonial chants, and circles and a blessing of the canoes. There are river and ocean competitions. The ocean races are much longer than the dragon boats and obviously involve more pacing and strategy over time.

Most Outrigger and dragon boat teams compete in regional competitions. These are fun and casual events where the whole paddling community is very supportive. I joined a co-ed team, and soon went as an extra to a short Outrigger race around the Haystack Rock in Pacific City, Oregon. Another team was one woman short and they asked me to hop in so they could compete.

If you’re really serious about Outrigger Canoeing, the mother of all races is the Molokai race from the island of Molokai to Oahu. This is a relay race where paddlers take turns by rolling out of the canoe into a waiting boat while rested paddlers jump in.

The great thing about paddling is you can find your own pace. You can choose a highly competitive Outrigger team that trains for Molokai, or a company dragon boat team that mostly just has fun getting out on the river a couple of nights a week.

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