Dragon Boats in the Great River Race

02 October 2006
Every year various human-powered watercraft compete in the Great River Race, a water marathon of 20 miles from Surrey to London. According to the Great River Race site: "Entries are restricted to traditional-style, coxed craft powered by a minimum of four oars or paddles. And, in keeping with the Company´s historic responsibility to apprentice and licence Watermen to carry passengers on the tidal Thames, each boat has to carry a passenger."

Henley and Titanic paddle it out in the Great River Race.
The race sees entries from around the world and is a colorful mix of watercraft from the shallop (a type of passenger-carrying barge owned by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen who originated the race) to Celtic longboats, Hawaiian´ outriggers and American whaleboats. Of course, it wasn´t long before the dragons entered the race...

Among the 16 dragon boat teams that entered this year´s race, top three times among the dragon boats went to The Brotherhood (2h, 24m, 08s), Thames Dragons (2h, 28m, 20s) and Titanic Dragons (2h, 31m, 18s). Titanic and 4th fastest dragon boat team, Henley Dragons (2h, 32m, 5s) described their experiences in this year´s Great River Race as the two closely matched teams from the Netherlands and Great Britain battled it out.

The Dutch Team...

Last year a combination of paddlers from the Concrete Dragons (Amsterdam) and United Dragons (Alkmaar) went to Bern to paddle in the 9k Armada Cup races. Unfortunately, the boat got swamped shortly after the start and the long trip to Switzerland was for naught. In spite of this unfortunate turn of events, the combi-team, re-christened the Titanic Dragons after their Bern experience and craving another long-distance challenge, entered the 2006 Great River Race in London.

On Friday, September 15, Titanic left Holland for London. The convoy of vehicles and a giant, shiny, black Land Rover with dragon boat in tow boarded the ferry in Calais, bound for Dover. From Dover, the convoy headed for London, arriving smack-dab in the middle of the afternoon traffic crush. After crawling through London for two hours (not an experience to be repeated with a convoy of cars used to driving on the other side of the road, one of which is towing a boat of nearly 13 meters!), the group nevertheless arrived safely at the start near Richmond. While three of the team members headed for the finish to drop off the trailer, the rest of the team enjoyed the famous pre-race barbecue and then retired to the hotel for a good night´s sleep.

The crew rose, looking forward to a good, hearty breakfast to prepare them for the Herculean task ahead. Alas, the promised croissants were nowhere to be seen and the hungry team faced a meager assortment of breakfast flakes supplemented by instant coffee, tea and juice. In spite of the disappointment, the team´s spirits were high and everyone was looking forward to the race.

Arriving at the start, head on, tail on, drum and steering paddle fastened, the team prepared for the race, helped one of the Dutch rowing teams onto the water and launched their own boat, anticipating a 10:44 start. In the chaos, the start signal was missed and it wasn´t until the team decided to start paddling of their own accord that they came alongside an official´s boat where it was confirmed that the race had already started - at least a minute ago. Uh oh...

The next hour was spent in the company of Henley Dragons, each team trying to shake off the other. After about an hour of sparring on the water, the "Green Team" (as Henley´s paddlers dubbed Titanic because of their fluorescent green shirts), got tired of the game and put all the strength they had left into a successful drive to pull away from their worthy rivals.

"The second hour went quite well. When we paddled by Westminster, Big Ben cheerfully greeted us with his famous melody - it was 12:30. This beautiful moment encouraged us to keep paddling towards the Tower Bridge."

Thanks to cool heads and the steering arts of helmsman, Ijsbrand, the team survived its next challenge: the huge waves, traffic and tidal currents encountered on this stretch of the river. Exactly two hours after the start, the team passed under Tower Bridge, thinking the end was nearly in sight. Unfortunately, at this point the team started losing steam, not realizing there were still 5 miles to go.

Titanic battles waves and strong currents on the Thames.

It was then that the Dutch team´s secret weapon, the superior drum skills of veteran drummer Alice, came into play. Alice kept the boat going with her energetic beat, giving strength to tired minds and bodies so that after 2 hours, 31 minutes and 18 seconds, the Titanics came over the finish line as the 21st boat in the race.

At the finish, Titanic discovered to their delight that they were third among the dragon boats entered in the race. Unfortunately, the team was disappointed to learn that dragon boats and Hawaiian outriggers were put into the same class. Nevertheless, the team came out 6th in the class and 7th overall out of a field of 273 participants - a result to be proud of!

In the evening, the team went out to celebrate, but didn´t get any further than dinner before they heeded the cries of aching muscles and tired bones and crawled gratefully into bed. Departing from the hotel at 8:30 on Sunday morning, they picked the dragon boat up from the finish area and headed for Dover. In spite of the previous day´s exhausting efforts no-one argued as they had to climb back aboard a boat - thankfully this one was powered by a motor - and were ferried across the Channel towards home.

"What a fantastic experience to have had together with this group! I can sum it up in one word: TREMENDOUS!"

Adapted from a report by Danielle van Es, Concrete Dragons: http://davinci.ballastnedam. nl/drakenboot/text_all.nsf/URL/1AB5724013711A59C1256F6A004C25FB?OpenDocument Also from members of United Dragons: www.united-dragons.nl

The English Team...

James Hickey, paddler:
My overriding memory of the GRR was the rush I got from being part of something so spectacular. The first half an hour left me buzzing, realising crowds of people had actually turned up to watch and were cheering from the banks and the bridges. The first half of the race was a gritty, determined dash to get past the mad Dutch team, my paddle clattering theirs, as our boats came together to pass under the bridges. An unspoken respect quickly grew between paddlers on each boat, as I feel each relished the chance to race against an equally matched team over such a long distance for international glory. Racing paddle to paddle with those guys while crowds shouted "Come on Henley!" from the bridges above, was the best rush I´ve had in my Dragon Boating experiences.

Esther Mihalik, paddler:
I still can´t believe we did it... when we passed through the finish line I was almost without my consciousness because of the pain I had in my body, so I turned back and only when I saw Tanya´s face relieved and saying `We did it!` could I believe I didn´t have to paddle any more...

I will never forget the moment when the first tide appeared and was approaching towards the boat; in my mind I had the image of tipping into the water! Even if we didn´t, from that point on our whole paddling was a constant fight against the waves, which seemed even harder as I felt a terrible stiffness in my bottom and my shoulders were aching so that I could hardly lift my paddle. I feared I would lose it any minute because I could grab it only with the tips of my fingers as I grew a couple of blisters in my palm. I couldn´t believe this struggle would ever cease, but I had no other choice than keep paddling (though it was far from being proper paddling among ideal circumstances...) I tried to dig my paddle, as Allie was shouting, but the boat was hardly moving, all my strokes seemed futile.

I regained my faith only when Allie cried out `4 more miles` which appeared so few after those 18 done that I finally realized I was not eternally destined to this awesome combat but there was going to be an end! The waves seemed to calm down at that stage and I felt much stronger. I was not influenced by any pain, and when she said the finish line was about 500m ahead of us, I felt as if we were racing at a usual league race; I gathered all my strength and concentration and went for it...

I could hardly get out of the boat or walk afterwards, I still have pain in my bottom when sitting, but it was such an experience I will always remember in my life. Thank you, Henley Dragons, for giving me the opportunity to share these moments with you!

Allie Lane, helm:
Some of my random thoughts during the Great River Race:
Did Esther really think she could get away without a paddle?
Where´s the start? Oh well, I guess we´ve passed it already.
Oh my god - how am I going to weave through all these boats?
Derek was right, I can´t do this.
Hello mum and dad.
I know, I´ll follow the ‘green team´ helm for a bit
Must prove Derek wrong - I can do this!
Lost count of how many boats we´ve overtaken already.
The ‘green team´ are doing a push.
Our Henley flag looks dead cool trailing out behind us.
It´d be great if we could get past the green team
I need a pee
That green team drum beat is beginning to annoy me
I wish these little boats would look behind before changing direction
It´s great to have the green team alongside us pushing us along
Oops, sucked into them, must improve my wash hanging
Bugger off Malcolm, I´m helming not you.
That green team is going to hit the bridge. Blimey their helm is good
. That´s bridge 13 out of 28
Wash hanging - yipeee!!
The green team is dropping back - have we lost them?
Shit. Thank God for Wendy´s shoulder
We´re paddling past Big Ben, how cool´s that!
The Greenies are pulling away.
Oh my god, that´s a big wave
Shit, we´re going in
Are we still alive?
What can I say to motivate them?
My back hurts.
Derek was right.
James looks like he´s going to die.
Woops nearly fell over.
Oh no, I can see another tourist boat in the distance, it´s going fast, and that means waves
What´s the best line to take when a massive set of waves hits you from behind?
I can´t believe they´re still responding to my calls
I´m talking gibberish.
Where are we?

Used with permission from the