Owensboro Builds on Old Tradition With Dragon Boat Races

Aug 26, 2013

Owensboro Dragon Boat Festival
Credit Emil Moffatt

As early-morning fog gave way to a clear blue August sky, 30 teams dressed in bright-colored t-shirts climbed into narrow wooden boats, adorned with a dragon head in the front. The teams paddled out to the starting line in the middle of the Ohio River.  

Todd Petzold expressed cautious optimism as his team prepared to participate in the Owensboro Dragon Boat Festival for a second straight year.

“We’re team MPD, and we’re not going to sink this year. And we’re going to have fun,” said Petzold.

The teams were made up of between 15-20 people, including men and women. Their experience level ranged from veteran to novice.

They’re taking part in an athletic event and tradition whose origins date back to the year 278 B. C. in China and a man considered the father of Chinese poetry, Qu Yuan.

“He wrote a particular collective verse call Li Sao that really created a sort of key role for himself in the history of Chinese literature,” said Mei Du, an assistant professor of History at Western Kentucky University.  She says Qu Yuan was popular, but some of his views ran contrary to the mainstream and was exiled.

“Unfortunately, the king at the time dismissed his ideas. That’s why he had to take exile and eventually committed suicide,” said Du.    

Those who supported and loved Qu Yuan are believed to have raced out in their boats to find his body, which was submerged in the Miluo River.  The cultural tradition spawned by Yuan’s death eventually became an official holiday in China, but that wasn’t until recently – 2008.  Before that, in the 1980s the sport of dragon boat racing started growing in popularity.

Professor Du says dragon boat racing has become a global sport.

“I think that’s why I think we can see Dragon Boat racing in Owensboro, in the middle of Kentucky,” said Du.

The teams competing dig their paddles into the Ohio River, guided by the beat of a drummer, sitting at the front of the boat. Keeping everyone in-sync is key, say experienced Dragon Boat racers like Katie Burkett.

She says the more tranquil the water, the easier it is to paddle.

“I would say, probably the toughest part of the race when it’s on a big open water way like this, you’ve got a lot of boat traffic so I would say having to deal with the wake throughout the day” said Burkett.  "But if you’re on a strong team like ours, the Chattanooga Dragon Boat Club, we know how to paddle through it”.

The competition is fierce but friendly.

“The engine room is all of us big guys. We’re gonna be in the back.  We got our boat moving fast last night, we were one of the fastest times last night. We were one of the fastest times out of all the practice time, so I think we’re gonna to be pretty good,” said Jonathan Jones from Slaughters, Kentucky. His team from the Rio Tinto company is called the Metal Mateys.

While most of the teams were dressed in custom t-shirt, the Mateys were decked out in red-and white striped shirts and black pants. 

“It started out with a long-sleeve, almost a dress – a pirate outfit. And we’ve taken scissors and modified ‘em all to look pretty rough, so I think it’s gonna be fine” said Jones.

The team names ranged from the Metal Mateys to the Froggy Paddlers to Dragon Boat Z and Western Kentucky’s entry from the school’s Confucius Institute.

In the first race of day, the Confucious team was in the lead, until the boat started veering off course, heading for the Metal Mateys.

Confucious would recover, however, winding up with a second place overall finish behind a team called REO Speedragon, which won the trophy for a second year in a row.

The races on the Ohio River were the main attraction, but there was also the festival, complete with games and music from bands like The Panther Creek Bluegrass Band.

As the smell of barbeque wafted through English Park, families sat on the stone bleachers cut into the side of the bluff and Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne beamed with pride.

“It’s just great and it seems to be growing,” said Payne.  “This year we have 30 teams – last year it was 21.  So, I suspect it’s just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger. Look out here today, it’s just absolutely beautiful.”

A Kentucky community brought together on a bright and sunny day, by a tradition from the other side of the world.