By Tina Concepcion Diaz
Fierce, fiery, and full of grit. Dragon boat racers display the same strength of character as their namesake once they’re straddled on their boat, paddles up and awaiting the signal to start. Once the short horn rings through the air, these mortal water dragons paddle intensely in synchronized harmony, each stroke following the rhythmic beat of their drummer who’s seated in the front bow, facing them, egging them on as he continually beats his drum in perfect cadence, pushing them to give their all for that last powerful stroke to clock in the fastest time and beat all competition.
Last May 26, dragon boat teams from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Canada, and the Philippines blazed through the pristine waters of Surigao del Norte, their boats converging alongside The Boulevard in Surigao City, to participate in the 1st Surigao International Dragon Boat Summer Festival.
Landmark event in Mindanao
Since its introduction in the 1991 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Manila, dragon boat racing has gained momentum and popularity among Filipinos, with the national team eventually sweeping all 6 gold medals for the sport in the 2005 SEA Games.
Yet it was only recently that dragon boat events were held in Mindanao, first in 2012 in Marawi, then in 2014 in Cagayan de Oro which started the Bugsay Mindanao series of dragon boat races, later on dubbed as Bugsay Mindanao: Paddle for Peace, whose efforts up to now are dedicated to championing peace through sports and the protection of Mindanao’s rich waterways.
So it was no less than a very ambitious project that just 4 years later, a simple coastal city would host the Philippines’ very first international dragon boat festival. It would take a strong local government unit like Surigao City’s and a major collaboration with its local Department of Tourism to make it all happen.
Dragon boat racing and the Filipino: a natural affinity
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Filipinos have taken to this sport like ducks to water, with the Philippines being made up of islands surrounded by beautiful waters, and Mindanao having its fair share of majestic rivers and natural resources. Coastal communities make use of boats to connect to its neighbors and as a means to conduct their livelihood. Boating has made its mark in Mindanao as a significant way of life and has produced men and women with the grit and tenacity to conquer adversity, whether on land or water. Dragon boat racing requires both in exacting quantities. It is teamwork in the ultimate sense where paddlers are pushed in the areas of synchronized rhythm, strength and endurance.
Destiny must be playing its hand too as historically speaking, the Surigaonon were the original paddlers who were witness to the Battle of Surigao Strait, where Allied Forces subdued the Japanese naval fleet in epic proportion in October, 1944. For Surigao City to play host to the first international dragon boat racing event is akin to a homecoming of sorts for its local paddlers.
Battle of the best
An opening ceremony preceded the race proper the day before, with a fun afternoon parade along The Boulevard where teams, particularly from the Philippine contingent, dressed in colorful costumes, depicting different scenes and cultural themes related to their cities. A sizable number of teams came from the Philippines, testament to the sport’s growing popularity. Three teams represented Luzon, seven from the Visayas, and 10 from Mindanao, with the host city proudly represented by Team Bugsay Marajao. Among the international contingent that included Malaysia and Canada, the presence of dragon boat teams from Guangzhou, China and Hong Kong must be noted as a sign of confidence in the race organizers and city host, as the sport traces its origin in Southern China some 2000 years ago. It was a sacred ritual once shrouded in superstitious beliefs that has now evolved to be one of China’s important contributions to the world of water sports.
The ceremony ended with the traditional “awakening of the dragon”, where the white eyes of the dragon heads are dotted to bless the boats and their crew, and grant them strength and guidance by the sea goddess.
Race day came at 6 in the morning, with the sun barely out and The Boulevard still dimly cast as spectators slowly filled the street and lined the bay, eager to take up position with a good view of the boats. The paddlers were busy warming up, music was streaming from all points and race organizers were everywhere, making sure everything proceeded as planned.
Teams about to begin their race huddled in a circle. And like the rumbling in the dragon’s underbelly that presaged intense fire, thundering hoohahs from the paddlers broke through the loud music and the voice of the race announcer, each shout rousing each other to impassioned energy.
From a distance, the paddlers and their boats slowly took position, their silhouettes like shadows of mythical dragons gliding through the waters as the sun began to cut through the horizon. Each heat brought on cheers from the crowd, as people watched, mesmerized by the dance-like flow of paddles rising and hitting the water, drum beats echoing in the sea air, while the race organizer blared blow by blow accounts and results of each category.
Promoting unity, eco-tourism and nature preservation
By midday, the races had come to an end, but the high energy and camaraderie that mingled between teams remained well into the closing night ceremony that was marked by creative talent presentations from each team. The Chinese teams decided to sing in their native language, and one of the lady paddlers was moved to express her sentiments even when no one translated for her. But it was clear in her voice that she was overwhelmed with gratitude at the way they were warmly welcomed by the people of Surigao City and for everyone who made the dragon boat summer festival a rousing success. The whole auditorium reverberated as all teams joined in singing and waving their arms in unity.
It was a time of championing the human spirit, and celebrating how a water sport, powered only by human hands, can make such a strong statement in terms of respecting the gifts of Mother Nature.
Already, plans are underway to make this an annual festival. The teams have promised to be back, and the City of Surigao is more than ready to play host once again. Truly, mas lingaw sa Surigao!
Here are the race results:
Small Mixed Major Category – Kampilan Dragon Boat Team, Davao
Standard Open Crew Category – Bugsay Marajao, Surigao
Small Mixed Minor Category – Leytenos Paddlers, Tacloban
List of Dragon Boat Teams:
RCP Sea Dragons
Sugbu Mighty Dragons, Cebu
Black Manta Warriors, Cebu
Cebu Poseidon, Cebu
Umagu Dragon Boat Team, Dumaguete
Metro Dumaguete Paddlers, Dumaguete
Baybreeze Sports Unlimited (BSU), Tacloban
Leytenos Paddlers, Tacloban
Bugsay Marajao, Surigao City
CGY Oro Dragons, Cagayan de Oro
Kujaw Tiger Dragons, Cortes, Surigao Del Sur
Dragon Warriors Davao, Davao City
Base Camp Dragons, Davao City
Kampilan Dragon Boat Team, Davao City
Amateur Paddlers Philippines (AmPPhi) Davao, Davao City
AmPPhiNOKAWA (ADHM) Davao, Davao City
FSUU Blue Dragons, Butuan City
FSUU Alumni, Butuan City
Knights Dragon Guangzhou, China
Rising Dragon Boat Team, Hong Kong
Orient Dragons, Penang Malaysia
Canadian Chamber of Commerce Dragon Boat Team, Canada
Photos by: Rax Dumadag, Surigao International Dragon Boat Summer Festival and Tina Concepcion Diaz
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