Friday, August 31, 2012

Retro racing

Dragon boats, aka 'canoes on steroids,' are coming to SML.

As the story goes, a deeply patriotic Chinese warrior is forced into political exile, and in his distraught state, throws himself into a river. In an effort to stave off fish and water dragons from devouring the man's body, passing fishermen pound on drums to drive the beasts away.

An event two years in the making and based on a 2,000-year-old legend finally is hitting the water on Sept. 15. Six watercraft, complete with dragonheads and tails, will glide through the waters off Bridgewater Plaza for the first Smith Mountain Lake Dragon Boat Race and Festival.

The race is a fundraising event for the Presbyterian Community Center, a Roanoke-based nonprofit that served approximately 2,400 families last year by providing food, mentoring and emergency financial assistance.

"It was a great way to build community relations and get the word out about the nonprofit," said Karen McNally, PCC executive director.

The race costs $1,100 to enter a crew of up to 25 participants. The deadline to register is Saturday, Sept. 1.

The boats are "42-foot-long canoes on steroids," said Christine Canevari, director of marketing for the Pan American Dragon Boat Association.

Since 2010, the Tampa, Fla.-based-event production company has traveled the country as a "one-stop shop" for boat races such as the Smith Mountain Lake event. Pan American supplies the six dragon boats, as well as the training for participants in two one-hour practice sessions, which will be conducted a week before the event.

Each crew will be comprised of 20 paddlers with up to four alternates. A Pan American steerer will control the boat's navigation. In keeping with the Chinese legend, one position onboard is designated as a drummer whose purpose is to maintain the paddler's pacing.

The race will be staged on a 350-meter course with three boats competing at one time. The winning team will receive an engraved paddle with the Dragon Boat Race logo, "and of course, bragging rights," McNally said.

In addition to garnering several corporate sponsors, including Carilion Clinic Velocity Care, lake-area businesses such as Bridgewater Plaza and Bridgewater Marina have signed on to help defray costs. Proceeds raised by the boat race will benefit the Presbyterian Community Center's outreach programs.

"I would be happy for anything in the plus column," said McNally. "But if I could raise $5,000, รข? I would be very happy."

This year's event will determine whether subsequent races will be held, with the possibility of future divisions based on gender and age, McNally said.

"The way I understand it is that dragon boat racing is one of the fastest-growing sports," she said. "There are so many outdoor-oriented people in the Roanoke Valley, I think it's a good fit."

smldragonboatrace.com or pccse.org