Here Be Dragons

Math Teacher Jessica Chu becomes Hockaday’s first Dragon Boat Racer

There is a dragon that lives at White Rock Lake. She is big enough to eat 22 human beings every weekend. As she approaches her target, her drumming heart thunders across the water and her 20 legs help her glide through the blue-green surface of the lake.

TO THE BEAT OF THE DRUM Math teacher Jessica Chu rows in a Dragon Boat Race at White Rock Lake. She has raced for five years and is now co-captain of her Dallas-based team. Photo provided by Jessica Chu

The dragon is an orange and white beauty—a professional racing boat purchased two years ago by the fledgling Dallas DeLite dragon boat club, the only professional club in Dallas. Math teacher Jessica Chu co-captains the team, which had very humble beginnings. So humble, in fact, that the club’s first practices consisted of sitting on a bench and practicing with fake paddles.

Dragon Boating started more than 2000 years ago in China. A respected poet named Qu Yuan was exiled for his political poems. When he drowned himself in the Mi Lo River, local fisherman raced to his aid and beat on drums and stirred the water to keep fish from eating his body.

Ever since, Dragon Boat races have symbolized the people’s love for Qu Yuan. Over many years the annual festival grew into a popular sport that then spread around the world.

The sport itself also changed. Now the races consist of long, shallow boats-similar to canoes-that hold 22 people: 10 pairs of paddlers, 20 total, plus the “sweep” who steers the boat in the back and the drummer whose beats keep the paddlers in sync in the front. The teams now wear athletic clothing, not traditional Chinese garb.

The boats are still decorated with the traditional detachable dragon head and tail and the sides of most boats have painted scales, but the sport has even evolved to hold highly competitive international competitions which require very expensive, specially designed (but still man-powered) racing boats.

Chu and the Dallas DeLite decided to purchase a real dragon boat: a 600 lb, $26,000 investment.

The dragon boat, stored in the White Rock Boathouse when not in use, is moved to the water for practices, which are scheduled from March through October on early Saturday mornings. They add Sunday practices before big races.

Dallas DeLite, whose logo looks a bit like that of the Sprite soda and whose uniforms are dark green athletic jerseys in their races, has grown in members since the team began to enter into competitions.

Total membership is up to 30 now. The extra members, Chu said, are helpful because sometimes team members can’t travel for races.

“It’s hard because all of our races aren’t here, usually,” Chu said, “We can’t always rely on people schedules being free, and people have families.”

Chu first began rowing with Jovin Lim, Dallas DeLite’s coach, in her first experience with dragon boating at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 2007. A group called the Chinese Student’s Association introduced her to the sport at Austin’s annual festival.

Tight-knit communities foster close friends, and Chu said DeLite is no exception. She said that the friendships made by Dragon Boating are the best part of the experience. Effective teamwork is the building block for racing success and strength actually comes second.

“It’s not all about the youthful thing, it’s about the teamwork and how much you believe in it and in each other,” Lim said. “There’s really no other sport that you can hang out in a boat and go on the water with 20 other people without having to talk to each other.”