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Wasabi Dragon Boat Club is looking for some happy paddlers

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Wasabi Dragon Boat Club held its annual barbecue today at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, hoping to add a few enthusiastic and friendly paddlers to its ranks. The event attracted about 100 people who enjoyed an opportunity to get out and paddle for fun and glory in the Willamette River.

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Dragon Boat Races have been a fixture at the Portland Rose Festival for more than 25 years, an event that attracts 80 teams from around the world.

Established in 1993, Wasabi is one of North America’s largest clubs with about 300 members. Its website lists 11 different teams, formed according to interest, age and ability. Most teams have both new and experienced paddlers, and a coach helps keep everyone improving and focused. Rest assured, it’s all for fun, but the clubs’ talented paddlers often compete in races throughout the world. For example, the group is preparing for the Club Crew World Championships in Italy this September.

Modern-day dragon boat racing began in 1976 in Hong Kong, but the sport originated between Chinese villages more than 2,000 years ago. Dragon boats have Chinese dragonheads and tails for certain festivals and competitions, such as the Portland Rose Festival, but the boats used for international competition are smaller, sleeker and faster.

What it takes

Launching from the pier on east side of the Hawthorne Bridge, boats typically head up-river past the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Depending on whether a team is getting ready for a competition, each group generally practices three days a week: such as on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Saturday morning. The duration of each practice session lasts about an hour, but that doesn’t mean constant paddling. Rather, paddlers will have numerous stops and starts to work on different techniques. Also, teams train year round, since Portland’s weather is mostly mild.

When I went out in the boat to get a taste of the sport with other novices, it was an invigorating half hour paddling in unison, cutting through the water and enjoying the surge of energy. Paddling provides a great core workout, something that I can certainly use. Each boat has 10 benches with two people per bench. There’s also a caller, or drummer, who issues commands, and a steersperson at the rear.

Different strokes

Randy Stokes, a 20-year veteran of the sport, coaches Wasabi’s U-23 team, a group paddlers between ages 12-23. “Our group has a practice at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, and some of them arrive looking like zombies,” he laughed. “But I love it on the river that time of day. It’s gorgeous with eagles and herons flying overhead.” Anyone who wants to learn more about U-23 can write Stokes at rjkmstokes@msn.com.

Wasabi’s mission is community, camaraderie and competition, and its membership truly embraces anyone willing to give it a go. For example, one of its teams is Wasabi VIP, a team of visually impaired paddlers, many of whom are alumni of the Portland Rose Festival team Lethally Blind. Brinton Olsen, of Gresham, lost his site after a stroke four years ago, and he credits Dragon Boat racing with overcoming his fear of going out in public.

“It keeps me in good shape, I love being outside in the river and I’m somewhat of a water rat,” Olsen explained. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment and community, and showed me that I can still do great things.” Olsen has medalled twice in Rose Festival competition.

Age also is no barrier to participation as Wasabi’s Grand Master co-ed team is made up entirely of paddlers ages 50 and above. Its oldest member is 82, and plans to make the trip to Italy.

To find out more: Write info@wasabiusa.org and you’ll receive an email letting you know available times and days for an orientation. Arrive 30 minutes prior to the start of practice. Bring water and wear water-resistant clothing. The folks at Wasabi will provide you with a life vest and proper paddle to go out in the boat.

Location: Wasabi is in the Portland Boat House, 1515 SE Water Street, at the rear of the RiverEast Building, just north of OMSI and South of the Hawthorne Bridge. There is free parking, restrooms and showers.

Wasabi Dragon Boat Teams

  • Wasabi Burn (Premier Mixed Program)
  • Wasabi Grand Masters Mixed
  • Wasabi Team HUGE (Wasabi’s premier women’s team)
  • Wasabi Power Surge (Women paddlers over 40)
  • Wasabi VIP (Visually Impaired Paddlers)
  • Wasabi Team SOAR (Women’s Cancer Survivor Program)
  • Wasabi Special Dragons (A team made up of developmentally and physically disabled athletes)
  • Wasabi U-23 team (younger paddlers ages 12-23)
  • Wasabi Team Kraken (junior program ages 19 and younger)
  • Wasabi Hana Hou (Outrigger Team)
  • Team Kapakahi (Women’s Outrigger)
  • Wasabi Tide Runners of Nehalem Bay
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