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Tom West: Undefeated -- and non-champions

The Twin Ports already has three great summer festivals: Grandma's Marathon, the Bayfront Blues Fest and in the North Shore Inline Marathon. In another year, you will be talking about the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival in the same breath.

The Twin Ports already has three great summer festivals: Grandma's Marathon, the Bayfront Blues Fest and in the North Shore Inline Marathon. In another year, you will be talking about the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival in the same breath.

That's not what I thought when Kay Biga called me a couple of months ago and asked if I would join Rotary Club 25's dragon boat team. I said, "Sure," figuring that all I would have to do is show up some place at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning, paddle madly for a couple of minutes and go on about my day.

Thirty some years ago, while visiting Hong Kong courtesy of Uncle Sam, a couple of shipmates and I had actually stumbled upon some dragon boat races. Twenty Chinese, with rags tied around their heads to keep the sweat out of their eyes, paddled by chanting, "Hai, hai, hai," to the beat of a drum. It looked kind of fun in an exotic, oriental kind of way -- which is to say it was not to be taken seriously like a red-blooded North American sport like football or hockey.

Thus, I forgot to ask what the expectations were. Coach Biga's first expectation was that we would try to know what we were doing beforehand. The first thing she did was send retired Lutheran minister Dan Bergeland to six hours of dragon boat training. Then she set two practices.

The first was held Sunday, Aug. 18. A full dragon boat crew consists of 20 paddlers, a steersperson and a drummer. Only 14 crew members showed up, but Bergeland got us organized and into the boat without falling overboard -- the first major challenge for any dragon boat team.

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Then he warned us that dragon boat paddling is not like canoe paddling. Recreational canoe paddling, of course, can take many different forms, but the key in dragon boating is staying together and putting your paddle in and taking your paddle out perpendicularly. If you were to put your paddle in and pull in a long arc until the paddle comes out of the water, the upward force of the paddle will create a downward force on the side the errant oarsman is sitting on, tipping the boat.

We took off and in short order it was obvious that we were getting the hang of it. Having the preacher yelling, "Stroke ... stroke ... stroke," also helped although I have to admit the first time he yelled "Stroke," I stopped because I thought somebody was having one.

Preacher Dan also made an astute move when he assigned District Court Judge John Oswald to be the steersman. Who better to keep us on a straight and narrow path than someone who spends his days keeping the people of St. Louis County on the straight and narrow?

We practiced again Tuesday. Most of the crew showed up, but we still had a couple of empty seats. For whatever reason, the practice did not go as well. We never seemed to get our rhythm, even though we had more people.

Then came the next challenge. Coach Biga had not mentioned during the recruiting phase that our team would be in the first heat, with a start time of 7 a.m. She told us first that we had to be there at 6:15 a.m., but then, taskmaster that she was, she moved our reporting time up to 6 a.m. I prefer to start my Saturdays more gently than blowing my aorta at the crack of dawn.

However, a deal's a deal. The entire team showed right on time, pumped and ready. We had a brief setback when we learned that Judge John would have to forego being steersman because he had not been through the training, but Preacher Dan, our leader throughout, stepped in and did an admirable job.

For a first time event, the festival was exceptionally well organized by the Superior and Harbortown Rotary Clubs. It is difficult to load 88 people into four dragon boats every 15 minutes and stay on schedule. However, this event seemed to be organized on a par with Grandma's Marathon, the local standard bearer for logistical efficiency.

As for the race, all I know is what I was told afterward. We galley slaves focus only on putting our paddles in the water at the same instant as the paddler in front of us. Onlookers said that we had an exceptionally strong start. As we came to the finish line, however, the Superior Rotary team almost caught us. Preacher Dan was exhorting us to sin no more and paddle harder, but at the end we were flailing and lost cohesion. Still, we won by a nose and thus can say that our boat was the first team to be in first place in the first ever Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival.

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The second race was the one we had been keying on ever since the pairings were announced. We knew we would never hear the end of it if a team captained by a fellow Rotarian, Dr. Joe Leek's Mighty Geezers, beat us.

This time, we started in second place, but kicked it in gear at the end to win our heat again. As in the first race, Preacher Dan kept us on track, and this time we stayed together. Our only disappointment was that our time was five seconds slower than our first heat time even though all of us in the boat felt we were five seconds faster. The important thing was that we smoked the Geezers by a half a day or so.

Alas, we did not make it to the finals. The finalists were chosen by ranking each team's combined time in the two heats. I'd like to think we are gamers and could have won another heat. The truth is, even though we were undefeated, we were, genuinely, non-champions. We finished, ahem, 33rd.

This year's event raised more than $32,000 to fight breast cancer at SMDC. That number is only going to grow. When word spreads on what a gas this event is, many more teams will want to make a contribution so they can be part of the fun.

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