Dragons answer call of the Regatta
The Women of Steel dragon boat team takes first place Saturday in the 500-meter premier women's race during the Three Rivers Regatta.
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A hundred yards from the site of the first World Series, a group of mostly European American athletes paddled Chinese boats past an old French and English fort on a river with an Indian name.
Saturday's dragon boat races along the North Shore of the Allegheny were part of the weekend's Three Rivers Regatta, which brings watercraft of all manner to the point around the old Forts Duquesne and Pitt.
A mélange of young and old paddled -- not rowed, mind you -- to the beat of a skin drum aboard a 40-foot-long craft that looked like a museum piece.
"It's a recreational piece. It's a racing piece," shot back Lynne Franks-Meinert, who heads the Steel City Dragon Boat Association.
Ms. Franks-Meinert pointed to a yellow-and-dotted boat that bobbed at dockside between races. Ornate, exotic and hearkening back to the days of emperors and tea, the boat was a gift to Pittsburgh from its sister city of Wuhan, China, and was not meant for a glass case but for the rivers once traversed by native tribes in canoes.
"There's nothing but power in that. It can't sit anywhere," she said.
To a weekend river festival that once again put concerts in Point State Park, speed boat races along the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, and skydivers on a collision course with rows of food stands featuring anything that can be fried, frozen or mounted and served on a stick -- add dragon boats.
Dragon boats are long, narrow, 500-pound boats with 10 benches on which paddlers sit in pairs. A carved dragon's head juts from the prow, a tail from the stern. At the back, someone works a long, thin oar to steer. Traditionally, dragon boats have been made of teak; today's boats use fiberglass. At the front, another person -- preferably someone small and rhythmic -- faces the paddlers and beats on a drum. Tradition calls for one stroke per beat.
It has become, said Lisa Kennard, a paddler from Shadyside, the fastest-growing water sport in the world. It's just now finding its way into the United States. Go to Toronto, say fans, and there will be three dragon boat races a weekend.
"It's very easy to get started," Ms. Kinnard said.
The oars are not attached, hence the boat is moved not with rowing but with canoe-style paddling. In a racing scull, rowers face backward and if one fails, the boat fails. Dragon boaters look to where they're headed, and if someone tires, the drumbeat and boat go on.
"The dragon boats are something anybody can do," said Rick Brown, executive director of the Three Rivers Rowing Association who called the race from the announcer's tent. "Some of these people have only practiced once or twice before this race."
Competitions can be fierce or leisurely, depending on the mood and the event.
Mixed teams of male and female, 16-year-old high schoolers and 70-year-old old schoolers, spent Saturday morning skittering up and down the Allegheny beneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Some compete on the international scale, joining the U.S. team in the world championships, held every odd-numbered year. Last year, Ms. Franks-Meinert rowed in Prague. Next year's world championship will take place in Tampa.
The exhibition matched featured teams with culture-bridging names such as Pittsburgh Paddlefish, Steel City Extremes, River Dragons, Dragonflyz, River Justice and Pink Steel. That last name represents a group of women, mostly breast cancer survivors, who embrace the sport as part athletics, part therapy.
Melissa Ward, 34, of Richland, is one of the survivors.
Before cancer, she was in the gym every day, exercising, kick boxing, even belly dancing.
"I felt a huge loss of control over my body," she said. A friend took her to a trial run of the dragon boats. Pink Steel members took her on the river.
"I was completely amazed by the power and tenacity of these women," she said. On Saturday, Ms. Ward was on the Allegheny.
Other Regatta events Saturday included the North American Championships for the Powerboat Superleague F-3. The competition sent speedboats hurtling around a watery oval that passed beneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
Today's events include a bass fishing tournament, 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; "Anything that Floats" race, 11 a.m.; and "Salute to Speed" Powerboat Superleague F-2 championships, starting at 1 p.m. Free kayaking lessons will be available along the Allegheny.
Winners of the Powerboat Superleague F3 races at the 2010 EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta:
First place: Brent Dillard of Dalzell, S.C.
Second place: Jeff Reno of Okeechobee, Fla.
Third place: Tammy Wolf-Jakob of Clifton, Ill.
Winners of the "Cadence on the River" Dragonboat Challenge:
Community category: Dragoni di Pittsburgh, first place; GSK River Dragons, second place; River Justice, third place.
Premier category: Pittsburgh Paddlefish, first place; Steel City Extremes, second place; Steel City Racing, third place.
Women's premier category: Women of Steel, first place; Pittsburgh Paddlefish, second place.
Breast Cancer Survivor category: Pink Steel 1, first place; Pink Steel 2, second place.
Youth category: Peace Paddlers, first place; Hot Metal Youth, second place.
First Published July 4, 2010 12:00 am