As the beat of the drums grows stronger and Tuesday's annual splash fest approaches, experienced and novice paddlers across Hong Kong are cramming in some last-minute training. Life salutes one of the oldest competitors and a new team whose participation is an act of emancipation FIFTY YEARS AGO, local fishermen celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival by racing boats - a spontaneous activity in which people simply climbed aboard the vessels and paddled them furiously to a finish line marked by a wooden float. Today, it's not just a fishermen's game, but a major annual sporting event for men and women from all walks of life. And it is growing in popularity, with hundreds of teams taking to the water during each Hong Kong racing season. On Monday, Aberdeen fisherman-turned-ferryman Lai Muk-kan will compete with 20 other dragon-boat teams in the prestigious fishermen's competition off Cheung Chau, where local racing began, and on the following day joins a 40-crew field in Aberdeen. At 67, and with 50 years of racing behind him, Lai is one of Hong Kong's oldest and most experienced paddlers. He has not missed a year of dragon-boat racing since he was 18, and clearly remembers the old days when there were no organised teams and no competitions. 'It was just fun for the festival in Aberdeen,' Lai says. 'All the participants were fishermen and their relatives. We raced for five consecutive nights. There were no prizes, just hand clapping for the people in the winning boat.' The second of 11 children in a fishing family, it followed that Lai became a fisherman, making his living in local waters. Fifteen years ago, with fish stocks and prices dwindling, he sold his boat and quit the profession. But with salt in his veins, he could never leave the sea. These days he ferries people the few hundred metres across the Aberdeen Channel between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau, while his leisure time is taken up with dragon boating. For this old man of the sea, paddling dragon boats is his only hobby. 'It exercises my body, keeps me fit and in touch with my friends. Everyone says I don't look my age,' he says proudly. Indeed, just a sprinkling of grey hair, tanned skin and muscular physique, Lai looks fit. He says paddling helps him forget any unhappiness. He remembers climbing into dragon boats as a child, and being told he wasn't allowed to paddle because he was too small. He only got to paddle boats taking worshippers to temples along the coast during the Dragon Boat Festival. But then in 1955, when he was 18, he got his chance to flex his muscles in the races. 'I didn't need people to teach me,' he says. 'As a child, I had watched other people paddling and it was all in my mind.' In the 1970s, landlubbers started taking to the boats, forming teams and competing in racing. Lai and other fishermen in Aberdeen formed a team called Luen Yu Lung (United Fish Dragon). With strong bodies honed by long hours of pulling in fishing nets and lines, and a familiarity with the local waters, Lai's team scooped up the trophies. 'This boat could not hold all the cups,' he says, gesturing to the big fishing boat on which he sits with friends. The dragon-boat racing season starts every March, and for Lai and other racers this means going to more than 10 competitions in Stanley, Lamma, Cheung Chau, Tai Tam, Po Toi, Aberdeen, the mainland and foreign countries. Lai's most memorable race was one held in 1992 in Australia. His team beat all the Australian crews and those from other Asian countries. 'The organiser told us that we were the first foreign team to win their cup,' he says, smiling broadly. In the same year, he travelled to Jilin province. Lai had paddled for six hours along a 66km stretch of the River Yangtze in 2000, but the northeastern climate was harsh. 'It was cold,' he says. 'The river was icy on the surface, and when our paddles hit the water, they made a crunching sound ... the splashing water turned to ice in the air.' During the 10-month racing season, Lai and his teammates, mostly former fishermen, train three times a week, usually in the evening. Assembling for a training run this week, Lai and his teammates straggle abroad a fishing boat in Aberdeen. While they wait for everyone to arrive, they play cards, joke, and discuss paddling skills. When the sky turns rosy, it's time to train. They change from scruffy card players to a team of sleeveless T-shirt-wearing paddlers, proudly displaying their dragon-boat logo. After warm-up exercises, the men, dive into their boat. Silently, they take up their paddles and swing into action. Lai's team is 26-strong: one leading and 23 other paddlers, one drummer and a sweep. A successful dragon boat team needs synergy as well as strength. First, Lai says, people have to be united in their paddling actions. The drummer, Kwok Mei, 57, beats different sounds to tell his team to speed up or slow down. There also needs to be a clever lead paddler and a smart sweep at the back of the boat, controlling its direction. Being calm and confident also helps, Lai says. Training runs are not against competition, but the clock. When his younger teammates paddle quickly, he sometimes takes a rest. 'Once I could paddle a training course without stopping, but now I need a few rests along the way,' he says, lamenting his age. Lai says he never thought of quitting, even when some of his oldest friends hung up their paddles. 'I will continue until my arms have problems,' he says. While Lai's strength may have waned, his enthusiasm hasn't. When he needs to increase speed in training, he adopts a more aggressive stance and shouts: 'Quicker!' The concentration and focus is written all over his face. 'You asked me why I have been doing this for so long. So, now you can see it's good fun,' he says. With the growth of the sport, the standard's improving every year, Lai says. Fifteen years ago, some young paddlers refused him entry to their teams because they felt he was too old. But not to be outdone, he and some old friends set up the Friends of the Dragon team. This team, mostly in their 50s, has since beaten many younger opponents, something Anson Yau Siu-yuen, a newly joined crew member, can attest to. 'They have great team strategy and always win,' says Yau who, in his 40s, is a relative whippersnapper. 'We had a race with Lai's team last year and despite being much younger, we were beaten. I wondered how they could be so good, so I came to join them, to learn.' As in life, there are successes and failures. Lai, whose four sons took to dragon boating but whose wife and daughter prefer dry land, has lost many times, including to what he described as the best teams - The Chinese Nanhai and the Indonesian international team, and a number of local teams. But Lai says he no longer cares about winning or losing. 'I just want to paddle,' he says. 'If I win, I am happy. If I lose, even better, because I can learn something from it to improve myself.'