Team Lamma show paddle power

Dragon-boat club has a long, proud tradition that has embraced the expat community and helped shape the fabric of the island

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 5:54am

Stemming from ancient Chinese fishing traditions, dragon boating has evolved into a fiercely contested international water sport. Every year thousands compete in international competitions, while hundreds of thousands participate in the sport worldwide. And yet, despite the sport's global reach, Hong Kong remains firmly at its core.

Passed from fishing communities to curious "gweilo" foreigners during the 1970s, the sport has been celebrated - over a beer or two - ever since for its powerful displays of endurance and timely precision. Over the years, teams of paddling enthusiasts have banded together on Hong Kong's shores only to disappear, along with the ebbs and flows in the tides of expat traffic.

But there is one Hong Kong dragon-boating club still paddling after 25 years: the Lamma Dragons.

Like any good dragon-boating story, it started with a drink.

"I was in the Island Bar when I heard a drum coming from the harbour," says Kathy Basey, a Lamma resident and one of the founding members of the club. "Fishermen were practising and it made me wonder, wouldn't it be great to have a team?"

After conversations with a Lamma resident who worked with the fishing community, lessons were organised for the women. Unlike the men, who had soccer and cricket teams, Lamma's women did not play any sport on the island.

Today, the club has 70 active male and female paddler members - who train three times a week for local and international competitions - as well as 25 non-active paddlers. Though perhaps not the biggest dragon-boating team in Hong Kong, their size can be measured by their spirit and rich history.

After forming a 22-strong team during the late 1980s, the Lamma women began training in borrowed boats with fishermen at the helm, beating the drums. They took part in competitions - the only expat team among a fiercely guarded Chinese tradition - for a laugh.

Back then, it wasn't a sport, says Sallie Shaw who has paddled with the club since 1992. "It was a cultural experience, maybe a bit of exercise too, but it was just a bit of fun."

But then things got serious. The women shocked the community in 1994 by finishing first in the Chai Wan Dragon Boating Festival against nine Chinese women's teams in a hotly contested final.

"It was one of those beautiful moments I'll never forget. Everyone was rooting for us - this crazy group of gweilo women - and it was front page news at the time," reminisces Shaw.

Folklore says the furious water sport has its roots in fishermen who raced across the Mei Lo river to save poet and politician Qu Yuan, who had drowned himself to protest against corruption. They sped on their boats to retrieve him, beating their drums and frantically stabbing at the water with their paddles to drive away the evil water spirits, but to no avail. To honour and feed his soul, they scattered rice into the water - a tradition celebrated each year at dragon-boating festivals around the globe.

The foreign women's involvement in the sport is all the more impressive considering Chinese tradition dictated that women weren't allowed to paddle. Being a male god, dragons were untouchable by the women, asserted Chinese philosophy.

Against the odds, the women of the Lamma Dragons have been a dominant force in Hong Kong's dragon boating ever since. At the Lamma 500 festival earlier this month, the women won gold over 1,000 metres and silver in the 500m.

It's not the coaching that has driven the club's success - though the addition of Gina Miller, a seasoned canoeist, as club coach 12 years ago has seen the club's performance increase dramatically. It's not in the quality of the boats. It's the unified heart of the club.

"There's a lot of people with huge hearts here," says Josh Sellers, who has been part of the club for the past seven years. "Like any sport, you've got to know your team inside out. Timing is everything in dragon boating: you're one paddle in the water."

But Sellers says it wasn't always that way for the male members of the club, who took up the sport much later and whose focus remained more on the drinking opportunities, rather than physical aspects of the sport. "We were horrible, we would come dead last in the plate final," he says.

The increased popularity of outrigging on the island as a way to cross train for dragon boating, particularly among the men, was pivotal to bringing them on par with the women. "We now get three or four boats out on the water at 6am on a Monday," says Sellers. "Dragon boating has grown from this tiny tribe to 60 people turning up and fighting for a boat." Above all, the club's success has to do with the pervading sense of community and their deep ties with the local fishing communities, who exclusively invite them to local races.

"Lamma is very lucky because it has a long continuum in its paddling. It has that neighbourly, inherited feeling. We are a small community, we know each other's business - probably too much. When you get in the boat that day, you're just continuing a conversation you had on the ferry," says Miller.

"I 100 per cent believe it's because of the solidarity of the team; we really are like a family," adds Vicki Medcalf, women's captain.

Tim Pottle from rival SMUGZ team reluctantly agrees that the Lamma Dragons' "X" factor has to do with the community feel, combined with strong effort. "I think they encapsulate the whole Lamma feel in their team as well. It started off as a good community spirit, but now they've backed it up with hard work and good paddling," he says.

After 25 years of paddling and with more people drifting towards the islands, the future of the Lamma Dragons looks bright. "I think it will continue to build. People on the team are very driven and they want it to move forward and progress," says Miller.

And now members of the club have their sights firmly set on the future generation of dragon boaters. "With our new purchase of a 10-man dragon boat, we will be looking at a youth development programme," says club chairman Brad Tarr. "We'd like our kids from our community to grow up to be competitive Hong Kong paddlers like us."