Dragon boats go Zen

The U.S. Dragon Boat Racing Championship in Tampa fuses teamwork with moments of Zen. The races continue today from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a dragon boat trade show from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Cotanchobee Park, 601 St. Pete Times Forum Drive. The event is free for spectators. Visit www.tampadbnationals.com .

Published August 26, 2006

TAMPA — For Suzi  Cloutier , it’s about the perfect “Zen moment” when the paddlers are exactly in time with the beat of the drum.

For Janet Jastremski , it’s about forming bonds with other breast cancer survivors, and coming to terms with her diagnosis.
It’s dragon boat racing. And, okay, technically it’s about commemorating the death of the Chinese poet Qu Yuan .

Legend says he thumbed his nose at a corrupt government 2,000 years ago by jumping into the Milou  River. Fishermen paddled to try and save him and beat drums to ward off hungry predators.

The dragon boats invaded Tampa this weekend for the 2006 U.S. Dragon Boat Racing Championship, which will determine national champions. Members of Team USA will compete in the 2007 world championships in Sydney, Australia.

Team categories include youth teams, age 50 and older and breast cancer support groups, to name a few. Jastremski, 58, came to Tampa from Philadelphia to compete with Hope Afloat, her team of 60 breast cancer survivors.

The team seemed like an athletic way for Jastremski to join a support group. She never imagined the hard work involved.
“I’m going to be out there with these middle-aged ladies and we’re going to be paddling around,” she said she thought. “I got the shock of my life.”

A steerer and 18 to 20 paddlers are on board during a race. A drummer beats a rhythm for the paddlers, who race for speed with other boats. Most dragon boats are at least 40 feet long and 700 pounds, and, well, look like dragons.

“It’s 22 people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time with a lot of power,” said 38-year-old Cloutier, who came from Portland, Ore., with the Wasabi  Women team.

Saturday , Cloutier and friends posed for pictures in front of a giant steel dragon sculpture in Cotanchobee  Park, between Garrison Channel and the St. Pete Times Forum. They planned to watch races Saturday and get back on board to compete Sunday .

“When you’re on the boat, you don’t get the perspective of what it looks like,” said Wasabi teammate Kristin  Anderson, 30.

Dan Smith, a 38-year-old from Harbour Island, watched the races and talked to some teams about joining up in time for next year’s championship.

“It caught my attention,” he said. “I love the fluid, in-sync energy of it.”

To hear Jastremski tell it, it’s even better on the water.

“If you’re all working together and if you’re all in sync, the boat will lift up and glide across the water,” she said. “It’s exciting.”