How dragon boat racing is changing the way we see Boracay

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In Boracay, dragon boat racing welcomes athletes of all nationalities, classes, ages, and genders, as it capitalizes on the world-famous tourist spot to engage more enthusiasts in the sport. Photo by JAMES BEN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s around 9 a.m. in Boracay’s Station Two, and the strip of land facing the shore is just beginning to come back to life. But at the beach — lined with tents housing paddlers from all over the world — the atmosphere is electric and the crowd is brimming with energy, as they cheer on five boats slicing their way through the water, head to head with other paddlers furiously powering their way in the horizon. Never mind the blazing sun: today, they have a race to win.

The boats move quickly, from right to left, carrying around 22 paddlers who propel the boat to the finish line. To witness the paddlers at their best game is to be awed at the masterful display of their power and synchrony: their arms move as one, as their blades hit the water to the rhythm of each boat’s drum. The drummer at the bow directs the boat’s speed; the steersman at the stern keeps it in line; and the paddlers keep the boat moving.

At the bow of each boat is a head of a dragon in mid-roar: a powerful figure known only in myth, but perhaps a fitting testament to the grace and spirit of the sport. Dragon boat racing — like many other sports — traces its origins from centuries ago, when men raced in ancient China to display their prowess at naval warfare. Today, the sport has found a home in Boracay in Aklan, as 33 teams from all over the world converged to compete in the Boracay International Dragon Boat Festival, which has been around for 11 years. 

The festival has become more than a competition, a steady fixture in the island’s vibrant culture. There are probably a hundred reasons why tourists and locals delight in the world-famous tourist spot, not the least for its nightlife and its waters. But for two days in April, the horizon becomes a race track, the sunset changes its silhouette, paddles line the shore, and out to sea — if one looks closely — there be the dragons.

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boracay dragon boat1.jpg Paddles decorate the shores of Boracay during the dragon boat racing competition. Photo by JAMES BEN

dragon boat racing 7.jpg Children also participate in the dragon boat races. Photo by JAMES BEN

It’s no small feat to organize an international sporting competition in Boracay. For one, the festival this year boasts of 1,018 paddlers in 33 participating teams, and in Boracay’s peak season, it’s hard to find room for all of them. But the formidable four-woman team leading the festival — Carolina Perez de Tagle, Gigi Piit, Tootsie Ronnholm, and Nenette Aguirre-Graf — makes it all happen.

The four women got together as organizers after noticing that previous dragon boat festivals were not as smooth sailing as they would like it to be. “When we started paddling, it wasn’t so organized,” says Graf. “They would put guests in resorts and the resorts wouldn’t get paid.”

Thus, starting 2006, the four women — all locals of Boracay — took matters into their own hands, along with the help of local government and other willing sponsors. “Because we are island residents, we want to make this the best dragon boat event in the Philippines,” says Piit. “This is not our profession. We do it out of our passion for dragon boat.”

Graf adds that they don’t organize the festival for the sake of it. “We’re organizing this so we can paddle,” she says. “You know what I mean: para maka-race kami nang maganda, as how we want it done, the standard that we want to present, complying with international standards.”

For Perez de Tagle, the festival distinguishes itself for being more fun than others. “In Boracay, you are a swimming spectator,” she says, unlike in Hong Kong, where the port water’s too dirty to swim in, or in Penang, Malaysia, where the competition is held in a dam. Adds Piit: “[Boracay’s] the best place to dragonboat. The water’s clean.”

dragon boat 8.jpg For the Boracay International Dragon Boat Festival, races are divided into 500-meter and 250-meter heats, among others. Photo by JAMES BEN

I haven’t been to other dragon boat competitions — this is my first time — but it’s easy to see what the organizers mean. It’s a delight to witness the three-day program for the festival, which starts with a boisterous parade along the stretch of Station Two. Where the parade began, teams already compete for the best cheers: you would think this was a UAAP championship, with the UP Dragon Boat Team chanting “U! Nibersidad! Ng Pilipinas!” and the DLSU Dragon Boat Team responding with “Animo La Salle!”

There is even a true-to-life mascot of a flying fox, brought by the Shangri La Flying Foxes, the first to reach the beach front at the Hennan Regency, where the parade gave way to the festivities’ opening ceremonies. Cocktails are served — but not too much — as teams will have to get up early the next day.

Tomorrow, they begin conquering the waves.

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We rode the course umpire’s boat (which was not allowed, as we found out later) around the tenth heat of the preliminary races the next morning. The umpire, Coach Christian of the Philippine Canoe & Kayak Federation Inc., leads us to the starting line. There, five majestic dragon boats begin lining up from across each other in accordance with the lane and number assigned to them. They would have to paddle 500 meters for this heat.

Coach Christian’s job is simple: keep the dragon boats in line. “Once lumiko sila ng ‘di nila number, tatawagan ko sila ng signal,” he says. Getting out of lane constitutes a foul. If the boat fails to get back to its line, it’s disqualified from the race.

Once the boats are ready, the paddlers wait for the signal. Paddles are raised. Once they hear the whistle, the drums begin to beat. Paddlers heave and pull. The boats propel themselves forward, bodies functioning as engines.

From far away — for a beach spectator, for example — everything looks simple enough. But more than any other sport, perhaps, dragon boat racing requires not only a strict, but a collective sense of discipline.

boracay dragon boat3.jpg Out at sea, dragon boats contend with the busy waves of Boracay's other boats. Photo by JAMES BEN

EJ Cayabyab of the Smart Dragon Boat Team, a new team organized just May 2016, tells me about his team’s program on the ground. A single race is divided into three sections: starts, pick-up, and the last kick. Paddlers can utilize two different strokes: power longs or hards. “In power longs, there’s a recovery period, ‘yung katawan mo uupo pa ulit. Hatak, upo,” says Cayabyab, demonstrating the move with his body. “Hards, shorter recovery time.”

Power longs are usually employed during starts, he adds. When the race gets tight, it approaches the pick-up phase, which requires a shift to hards. “Mabilis lang, tapos malakas,” says Cayabyab. Paddlers go all out during the last kick.

Out at sea, paddlers need not only exert effort to advance forward, but must also struggle to fight the waves. Waves affect the speed of the boat, says Cayabyab. They also cause boats to move away from the lane, and at times — capsize.

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boracay dragon boat10.jpg After a race, an amputee paddler is welcomed by friends at the beach. Photo by JAMES BEN

“We don’t use that word — capsize,” laughs Andrew Baker of the Singapore Barbarians, a veteran team which has been paddling in Boracay for all of the festival’s 11-year history. The Barbarians is one of the most recognizable teams in the festival, and at one point had 100 members to its name. They also have a stellar performance record, but it doesn’t mean they don’t lose sometimes.

In fact, later on, Baker admits: “Many people here have never capsized anywhere other than Boracay. It’s the waves, the speedboats.”

For Paul Hibbard, also of the Singapore Barbarians, there’s a steep learning curve involved in paddling in the island as compared to Singapore. “We’re normally paddling in very flat water, a river or lake in Singapore. It’s very smooth water,” he says. “Coming here for us is a great challenge, paddling in the sea.”

“In any dragon boat team, there’s no superstar. You need to work together. If ikaw ‘yung napapansin, you are not in sync."

 

Paddling in Boracay has become part of their team’s culture as well. “It’s just become something we do. Back when we’re Singapore, people paddle as Germans or Brits, but here, we are barbarians,” says Baker. Hibbard adds, “This race, it brings national communities together. We team up, put a team together from different clubs, and race as one out there.”

 

Dragon boat racing is also one way to build a familial bond between the paddlers. “When you get a whole boat rowing together, everyone’s paddling in time, pushing hard, boat’s moving fantastically, it’s a great feeling,” says Hibbard.

“In Singapore, because we’re all expats, we don’t have families,” adds Baker. “Our sporting teams become our families.”

It’s how a narrow boat literally brings people closer together, especially when one trains as hard as the teams in the festival, that creates that special bond, according to Ian Ulpindo, the coach of the UP Dragon Boat Team. “Imagine, every training day, one hour every training, you share that boat, you’re in the middle of the water, you’re in the middle of Manila Bay,” he shares. It’s inevitable that people become closer in time.

boracay dragon boat4.jpg Andrew Baker and Paul Hibbard of the Singapore Barbarians. Photo by JAMES BEN

The UP team has been training since the festival ended last year, and enters this year’s festival for the seventh time. Aside from creating lasting bonds, what attracts Ulpindo and the rest of his teammates to the sport is its focus on unity. “In any dragon boat team, there’s no superstar. You need to work together. If ikaw ‘yung napapansin, you are not in sync,” he says.

The sport is also very inclusive. “The good thing about dragon boat is kasama mo 'yung mga babae sa boat. Very seldom sa isang sport na magkasama 'yung lalake and babae,” Ulpindo adds.

The inclusivity of dragon boat racing does not merely extend to all genders, however — as with the Boracay Bumshells, an all-woman team based on the island — but to persons of all shapes and sizes. The festival this year welcomes, for the first time, PADS' Adaptive Dragon Boat Team, “a brave new team of people” from Cebu comprised of blind, deaf, mute, amputees, and other persons with perceived disabilities.

I say “perceived” disabilities, because JP Maunes, director of the Philippine Accessible Disability Services (PADS), immediately stresses that disabilities are a matter of perception. “We don’t talk about disability as you’re amputated or blind; it’s the environment. It’s how people see you that makes you disabled,” he says. “There’s no disability here, it’s only a person who needs the opportunity and mechanisms so he can compete and race with other teams.”

boracay dragon boat5.jpg Some members of the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Team. Photo by JAMES BEN

Out at sea, the PADS dragon boat team is led by Marvelous Jorda, a blind man. Jorda sits in front as a pacer and sets the tempo for the team’s collective strokes. As he paddles, others in the team follow, and he leads by listening to the sound of the waves and the beat of the drummer.

The core of the exercise is to maximize the strength of each other’s disabilities, for which dragon boat racing is a perfect platform. “Dragon boat racing is a seated sport. Seated sports have been dominated by PWDs for the last four to five decades,” says Maunes. In fact, the festival in Boracay is merely the gateway for the team’s historic participation as the first Filipino paradragon boat team in the Hong Kong International Paradragon Championships.

PADS, aside from looking for sports where PWDs can display their strengths, also helps them acquire employment and other life skills. “For the past few months, companies have been interested [in what we’re doing]. Just a week ago, four of our paddlers were directly hired,” says Maunes, after the paddlers were witnessed engaging in the sport. “Dragon boating is actually the tip of the iceberg.”

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For most paddlers, to be in Boracay is already a reward in itself, as the island seems to have a constantly beating heart, keeping its residents and tourists perpetually alive as they seek their own adventures. The sunset's silhouette makes the trip already worth it, and on the festival’s first day, the coast was littered with people attempting to immortalize the scenery with their cameras. The sailboats, the setting sun, the swimmers, and the last of the dragonboats sliding in the horizon’s backdrop made for a perfect memory, one which I’m sure the paddlers will keep coming back to.

dragon boat 9.jpg Two paddlers embrace by the beach. Photo by JAMES BEN

dragon boat6.jpg Dragon boats docked on shore against the Boracay sunset. Photo by JAMES BEN

One can speak of dragon boating as a way to boost the island’s tourism, which it does. One can speak of it a sport that brings people together. One can consider it a great equalizer, a sport that dispels with traditional notions of strength and power. One can see it as another facet to Boracay’s multi-layered culture — as one team puts it, you paddle hard, party harder.

Or: one can simply sit in the sand, and revel in the magic of how all these elements come together.

Basking in the last light of Boracay’s summer afternoon, I watch as tiny paddlers burst into the final leg of the day’s last race. The sun sets between two sailboats. People mill around the tents, now empty of paddlers as the day’s activities succumb to the dark. Somewhere the loud music beckons. Somewhere, a whistle blows.

As pinpoints of light twinkle from the horizon, the night descends, caressing the island in the softness of its embrace.

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For more information on the Boracay International Dragon Boat Festival, check its Facebook page.