Have paddle, will travel: team GB scouts seas for dragon boaters and finds them in Hong Kong, of course

Hong Kong paddlers will be representing many countries at the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Kunming

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 11:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 10:27pm

“Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet; till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgment seat.”

The opening to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” is often taken out of context; people forget the lines that follow, as Great Britain dragon boat team coach Tim Smith kindly reminds us:

“But there is neither east nor west, border, not breed, not birth; when two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”

With Team GB now comprising 37 Hongkongers – 50 per cent of the squad – Smith felt the poem was the perfect way to describe his team’s transition over the past few years as his three boats compete in this week’s International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Kunming, China.

“We had the UK-based people, the Hong Kong-based people, but now we have one squad, one focus,” said Smith. “This is us.”

Smith has been scouting the Hong Kong seas for talented paddlers throughout his five years as GB’s premier team coach. Not a bad idea, considering the city has an annual festival devoted to dragon boats.

“Dragon boating is global, so why limit your team to inside your own shores? It’s preposterous when you think about it. We shouldn’t just look inside; we should look beyond the horizon.”

After putting his Hong Kong recruits – all British passport-holders – through a series of time-trials, Smith finally settled on his squad and laid out the blueprints for Kunming.

The problem was: how could he train the squad if half of it was based on the other side of the world?

“It has certainly been a unique experience as a coach,” said Smith.

“I’ve done five trips to Hong Kong now and we’ve been doing the same drills here as we have been doing 7,000 miles away in England.

“It’s the same programme, they just had to adjust to the GB stroke a bit, but you expect all this fine-tuning to happen anyway.”

When Smith was back home working with the other half, Hong Kong training was run by Vicky Easton of local team Stormy Dragons.

After months of studying Smith’s boat tactics and stroke techniques, both parties met and trained for the first time at the Victoria Recreation Club in Deep Water Bay last weekend.

“As soon as I got in the boat and we started going, I thought ‘this is the stroke we’ve been learning’,” said women’s squad member Michelle Lau. “It felt right.”

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Lau is one of the Hong Kong-based GB team members but has spent substantial time in both the UK and Hong Kong. She moved to the city five years ago and now paddles for Stanley-based team Seagods.

“The great thing about dragon boating is that everyone moves as one. Everyone has a place in the boat – you just have to find it.”

Lau, a self-described “water baby”, recalls swimming alongside three-time Hong Kong Olympic swimmer Hannah Wilson during her teenage years. Like Wilson, Lau is finally able to compete at international level.

“I got to county level with tennis, but never really got ‘there’; I won the British university karate championships four years running, but was always a step shy. Finally I’ve found a sport where I could make it to the top – it only took a dozen!”

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Michael Lee was also called up to the GB squad having spent more than a decade with Tai Tam Tigers. “One of my friends asked if I could help out one day, but he didn’t tell me it was an actual race,” said UK-born Lee. “He said ‘all you have to do is stay at the back and paddle’, and I’ve carried on doing it for 13 years.”

“Coming to Hong Kong – where my parents are originally from – is always good, and then representing GB – where they raised us – is quite a unique scenario.

“It’s been a real journey since the trials. Changing up home life, lots of pain in the gym ... there were months I could barely hold a beer up. But this is national standard and we know we have to train hard.”

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Lee said some of his club teammates would also be travelling to world championships; not as spectators, but as competitors.

“One guy will be paddling for Spain, and two are paddling for the US. We’ll be meeting up as different nationals, but showing our Hong Kong roots on a global level.

“We are representing our countries but also the Hong Kong paddling community.”

Coach Smith is not fazed by any cultural gaps within the team, nor the lack of time to gel. Quite the opposite; he goes to Kunming feeling extremely confident.

“My son, who is at the helm, thinks this is the most powerful open team we have had in some time,” he said. “We have a short space of time [to train together] but we’ve done the hard work.

“Now it’s about getting them together, looking at different permutations ... I need them absolutely locked in for each other – not the queen and country – but the people in the boat.

“My aim is to get them into a major final – that puts you top six in the world. We’ve got to be optimistic but realistic.

“It’s not about how many punches you can take, but how you respond to them.”