The fifth annual Dragon Boat Race Festival brought together Stony Brook University students and staff, amateur and professional competitive racers, community groups, civic and non-profit organizations, vendors and performers to celebrate pan-Asian culture at the Port Jefferson Harbor on Saturday, Sept. 15.
Dragon boat racing has its roots in Chinese culture. It is an over 2,000-year-old tradition that comes from superstitious Chinese villagers who celebrated the festival to avert misfortune. The races can be from 200-meter to 2,000-meter long.
It is the fastest growing water sport around the world. A typical dragon boat can hold up to 20 people, with a drummer in the front and a steerer in the back. The team has to work together in order to get to the finish line first.
The Dragon Boat Festival in Port Jefferson was a 200-meter timed race with a competitive and club division with about 30 teams racing. The winners get medals at the end.
Cheryl Chambers, co-captain of the university team and associate dean and director of multicultural affairs at Stony Brook University, said this dragon boat racing is a great way to celebrate Asian culture thematically.
“This is really a wonderful Port Jefferson tradition that has been growing and building over the years and there is a great deal of community support,” Chambers said. “Our participation is showing our support.”
The university team, Stony Brook Seawolves, consisted of students, faculty and staff. Some of the students and faculty were returning for their second and third years in a row. The team has competed all five years of the festival.
“The races were low pressure and fun. The boat is really small. You’re all huddled together as a team. It makes it feel like you’re one,” Alex Chacon, first time dragon boat race paddler and freshman political science and anthropology double major, said. “We got better as we moved to the last round.The last round we got second place and we beat the police department.”
The university team chanted “one, two, three, four, five” in unison, in order to stay in sync as the beat of the drum was humming in the background.
Lucas Wong, a sophomore marine sciences major, was the pacer on the university team, one of the first two paddlers in the first few rows. He rowed for both the university team and his dad’s team “Gotham Thunder.” He’s been to Toronto, Baltimore, New Jersey and other places to race.
“I was on the boat before I was born,” Wong said. “My mom, when she was pregnant, was sitting on the drummer’s seat. My dad steers.”
“Gotham Thunder” is a competitive team that travels around the country, sometimes internationally, to compete in dragon boat race festivals. The team was in Hungary recently.
Wong’s father, Eugene Wong, steers for the “Gotham Thunder” team. He has been competing in dragon boat races for over 25 years. He said he likes the sport because it’s a team sport and it forces him to stay in shape.
The “Gotham Thunder” team changes every year and they travel about five to six times a year. They’re traveling to the Bucks County Dragon Boat Festival in Pennsylvania next week.
Barbara Ranson, director of operations at the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and chair of the organizing committee for the event, said she brought the idea of a dragon boat festival to the Chamber of Commerce about two years ago. She got the idea from seeing a festival in Cape May, New Jersey. It took two years to organize the first festival and some of the organizers went to other festivals to see how they planned it.
Besides boat racing, the festival had 17 different groups performing this year, the largest amount of performers that the festival has had in its five-year run. Stony Brook University’s Taiko Tides, a performance group that focuses on Japanese drumming, performed several times throughout the day.
Other performances included the Yiyuan Dance Group with a Chinese and Mongolian folk dance, tai chi from the Stony Brook Chinese School and a performance of the Japanese Koto and Shamisen instruments from the Miyabi Koto Shamisen Ensemble. The performers wore traditional costumes from the cultures represented, such as kimonos, hanfu and a dragon head costume.
“I hope in the years to come, the best thing would be to have more and more students really be a part of this event,” Chambers said. “Either actually doing the rowing, or cheering the Seawolves on or performing at the event, which draws hundreds and hundreds of people.”