Saturday, September 3, 2011

Making Waves with Dragon Boat Rowing (Manila Bay, Philippines)

Published by Speed Magazine, 2004
Images of the Philippine team by Ray Soberano

It took me three weeks to muster the will to get up by 4am. When I was told that practices start at 530am weekends, I knew I was in trouble. It would mean getting up by 3am which was a problem because around that time, I would just be saying my bedtime prayers. But miracle of miracles by 529am, I was at the Manila Bay area where the dragon boats were docked. 

Complaining to one of the rowers for waking me up at such an ungodly hour.

Before six, the members of the amateur team Rowers Club Philippines (RCP) lined up by the bay for the warm up exercises. Unfortunately, that included me. For half an hour, my complaining limbs were treated to stretches, crunches and jogging rounds to prevent possible sprain or muscle pulls. For the hardcores, push ups, sit ups and pull ups kept them fit.  Thirty minutes to an hour of stretching and warm ups strengthens and balances the muscle development. This is necessary because rowing demands much from the body’s upper part. This means the arms, shoulders, lower back and the abs usually get developed in the sport.

Mag exercise tayo tuwing umaga, tuwing umaga. Upang ang katawan natin ay sumigla!

Then and now

Rowing is a good work out, a recreational sport, a challenging and stimulating endeavor, a competitive pursuit, a chance to commune with nature, and an opportunity to conquer the elements all in one. It’s a past time that’s easy to get into, yet in spite of the many benefits it hasn’t quite caught up yet like pearl shakes and badminton (author’s note: this was published a few years back when the aforementioned were the big things back then).

Dating back to 4th century B.C., dragon boat rowing is still as alien as most water sports in this country. The sleek colorful boats originated in China where a patriot threw himself in a river out of frustration with his country’s political situation then. If Qu Yuan didn’t do it then, a Filipino would surely have done it here with our constantly worsening political condition, and the credit for the inventing the sport would have been ours. But I digress; China had it worse then and took the credit. Fishermen rowed to the rescue, making noise and waves with their paddles and drums to distract the fish and water dragons.

Gingerly, we stepped into the boat, afraid of falling into the polluted water.

Today, dragon boat rowing, also known as traditional boat rowing, is governed by the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation (PDBF) in the country. Three groups keep the Manila Bay traffic busy: the amateur group, the military group, and the national team. The national team is the head delegate who participates in international competitions.  Those who are in it for the recreation and the breath of not-too-fresh bay air, would best stick to the amateur teams. 

Gearing up

Slather up the sun block, and put on your wet gear, and you’re ready to go. But if you mean serious rowing, suiting in full gear wont be a bad idea either. Lycra suits are advisable because they dry easily, are lightweight and snug. Some suits are designed to reduce body temperatures when the sun is high up and burning and act as lightweight thermal protection in cold conditions. Rowers suggest garments 20% lighter than polyester and treated with hydrophilic finish like Sub Zero, Speedo and RS. A hydrophilic finish pulls the moisture away from the skin and disperses it for quick evaporation. Too technical for you? Pull on a sleeveless shirt and you’re ready to go. Snug fitting sleeves and leggings also help protect the extremities.

Proud to be part of the team even if it's just for the day.

Foot gears are aqua shoes or waterproof sandals. To prevent chafing your leg positioned against the side of the boat, it’s a good idea to don a knee pad. Knee pads are also useful during standing positions. Close fitting gloves with grip dots offer the palms extra gripping power and protection from chaffing.

The salty waters of Manila Bay can be cruel to the eyes (who knows what sort of breathing mysteries lurk in there). Rowers suggest aquatic sports goggles as protection from water stings and harsh sunlight.  Hydrophobic lenses are water repellant and resist fogging. Brands to look for are Rudy Project and Aqua Sphere. Sunglasses won’t prevent water from seeping in your eyes as well as goggles, but if you refuse to look like a goldfish out of water,  choose the wrap around, water proof  and lightweight designs from Oakley and Dragon. 

Once you’re suited up in style, it’s time to choose your paddle. Paddle designs differ and are usually custom made. Most come in lightweight strong wood like Yakal. The more advanced rowers prefer aluminum paddles. Some use a combination of aluminum shafting and wooden blades. Aluminum is half as light as wood and therefore lessens the effort and strain on the lifting arm but at the same time provides greater pull. Others attach fiber glass fins for added power. Fins also prevent the paddle from wobbling.

Almost a sacred ritual: Rowers from St. Paul's, Concord carefully put their boat to rest.

Then comes the dragon boat. If you’re rowing in this country, there won’t be much of a choice. There’s the long boat and the short boat. The long boat, usually designed in China, seats 20. The short boat seats ten. They’re commonly used in international races but since we only have two docked at the bay, they’re rarely used. Imported and expensive, boats can only be rented from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC).

Ready, row!

When you're dragging the team behind, wear a pink cap to cover up and save face.

The beauty about being a beginner in this sport is that you can join in on the fun without basic training. “You don’t need skills to join rowing because it’s developed in training. All you need is self discipline, will, and thrill,” shared Cris Reyes, RCP Team Captain.

On the first day, the beginners, which included yours truly, were positioned at the end side of the boat before the steersman. This is the perfect place for us where we could cause as little trouble as possible. A crew usually consists of 18 paddlers, 1 signal man and 1 steersman. That drizzling Saturday, there were less than 20 of us who braved the cold water sprays.

The signal man, also the team captain, ordered us “ready” which simply meant bending forward and positioning the paddle to an inclined position with the tip almost touching the water. I wrestled with the 4-foot paddle but before I got comfortable, the team captain hollered “row!” I sliced my paddle into the water and paddled like crazy while trying to synchronize with the rest of the team.

                                    A seamlessly synchronized team is like a well oiled machine working to perfection.                                            Image captured by Ray Soberano.

Synchronization is key, other wise, your paddle would be drumming with the paddles of the rowers in front of you and behind you. This could be annoying especially to your neighbors whose momentum could get thrown out of whack every time you made contact. All I could do was muster a weak apology and struggle to join the beat. I knew I was a beat behind because I could feel the tension on my arms and the pull was difficult. Where were the drums?

Will and thrill

I was busy trying to be in sync, that I didn’t notice we were moving smoothly away from the dock and in the middle of Manila Bay. Soon as I became aware of my surroundings, I took in the sights. In spite of the unfriendly weather, the water behaved and lay flat on the earth’s belly. This was an ideal condition for the rowers. Even the white washed yachts were sleeping. The water’s mercury like consistency were disturbed only by passing long boats and signal men bellowing commands. Occasionally, the elite group, as the rowing kindred would call the navy, the marines or the national team, would speed by.  Almost identical in their black jerseys, crew cuts, and huge brown biceps, they moved smoothly not as a team of twenty but as one entity like a sea serpent. I breathed in the sea air from our long boat and thought, waking up at 430 am was well worth the sacrifice if only for this quiet thrill.

Once a good stretch away from the dock, the trainer spent a few minutes on briefing and the mandatory pep talk to clue in the newbies. Whether for recreational or competitive levels, basic training set up is the same. The paddler should have a good starting point with a proper grip on the paddle. If you’re on the starboard side (right side) the left hand is used to grip the tee  and the right gripping the shaft a hand away from the neck. Simply switch if you’re on the port side. Giving distance from the blade allows you more power on your pull. 

Rowers Club Philippines Men's Team

Contrary to how it looks, rowing is not merely an arm sport. It requires cooperation from the whole body, particularly from the upper torso with strong support from the lower part of the body. The power of the pull does not come from the arms alone. The paddler should bend from the waist on every stroke and pull up bringing the arms along. Thus, the arms are not strained and every bend and lift becomes one fluid motion.

The next starting point is the proper sitting position. Legs should anchor the body either with both legs stretched or one leg folded. The idea is to find the side you’re most comfortable with.

Different Strokes

After everyone sat side by side in two rows, the signal man then ordered “ready.” So much for sight seeing as the team captain yelled “row” and we paddled further away from the dock. From light rowing, the pace is usually switched to long strokes then powerful long strokes then to hard strokes. Light paddling is at least one stroke per second without load. Long or normal stroke is one stroke per second with load on the paddles and arms stretched to maximum reach. Hard strokes are at least two strokes per second with quick entry and paddle drive. During competitions, races are usually started with hard strokes. The pace is then switched with power long to long strokes in the middle of the race. The finish line is reached through power and hard strokes.

Had the privilege to watch my nephew compete as a coxswain in New Hampshire.
The coxswain can also be the team captain of the team.

On my initiation, we slid across at 2 meters/sec on normal strokes. After a few minutes of leisurely paddling, the intensity of the game was increased a notch as the signal man ordered “long strokes.” The speed was then increased from an easy 3 meters/sec to 4 meters/sec as we rowed with hard strokes while our heartbeats increased and sweat washed away the crystallizing salt on our burning arms.

Once I got the hang of it, I began to lose my individuality. But it was a happy surrender. Suddenly the boat, my paddle, the team and I were one body working as different parts to achieve a common goal. For an instant too, I felt like the water and the wind were working with me. The offensive elements of Manila Bay didn’t seem so pungent anymore. I didn’t mind the rank smelling water washing my face. Occasionally salty water would sting my eyes, but I simply kept them closed and rowed and breathed as one with the rest of the team.


you've done everything!!! i'm so jealous, i'm gonna row too. ;-P

Row gently...hehe. Next on the list: ride a hot air balloon!

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