IT GREW out of Chinese folk and religious customs. While dragon boating might be relatively new to many in Trinidad and Tobago (TT), the sport, because of its communal nature, has already gained a large following here. It is the hope of the Trinidad and Tobago Dragon Boat Federation (TTDBF) president Keith Dalip that the sport helps to encourage and develop more communities in the country.
According to the International Dragon Boat Federation’s (IDBF) website, [www.idbf.org] the over 2,000-year-old water sport, was used in ancient China, “for religious purposes as a way of appeasing the rain gods.”
“Later Qu Yuan, the great warrior poet, committed suicide in the river Mi Lo, as a protest against the political corruption of the day. To commemorate this sacrifice the people began to organise dragon boat races in his memory. Since that time over 2,000 years ago, dragon boat racing has become a major part of Chinese culture, representing patriotism and group integrity,” it said.
The sport has retained a very strong attachment to its cultural origin, Dalip added.
In 1976 the very first international event was held in the Hong Kong Harbour through the Hong Kong Tourist Body. Hong Kong remained the seat of international events for dragon boat until the International Dragon Boat Federation was formed in June 1991, Dalip said.
“It was felt there was a need to standardise the sport especially if it was moving into an international arena...
“In 2006, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants to Trinidad, there were several events to commemorate that and one of the members of the Chinese Bi-centennial Ltd (a company formed to oversee the events and the commemoration), Franco Siu Chong felt that dragon boat would have some traction in TT.”
Dalip said the relevant inquires were made, which led to six dragon boats being brought into TT. The first dragon boat event was held in October 2006 at Williams Bay in Chaguaramas and 30 teams took part.
Some of the participating groups realised that this could evolve into a sport and the TTDBF was formed in 2007. The federation now has a membership of approximately 600 distributed over 28 clubs, split between junior and senior clubs. The annually-elected board is currently run by Dalip, Aliyah Hosein, vice president; Zalika Timothy, secretary; Kimberly Howai, PRO; Nisha Maraj, treasurer; Atiba de Four-Howard, member; Leroy Anderson, member; and Franco Siu Chong, supernumerary member.
Dalip, a sailor and a lifelong lover of the sea, said he saw the ad on the paper for the event and decided to get a group of family and friends together to enter the competition.
The paddle sport, he said, typically has a 22-member crew with one drummer and a helmsman. The boats are typically 20-man boats. “Twenty people sit in ten seats, two abreast, leaning over the side of the boat getting their paddles into the water, and effecting a paddling stroke. What makes dragon boating beautiful is when you see these 20 people doing it in perfect timing.
“Throughout the boat there is mental connection that happens and there is that commonality of purpose driving the boat forward. On the boat as well is a drummer that sits on the bow of the boat. That is very ceremonial. The drummer also musters the team. The helmsman, the person who operates the oar, keeps the boat in the direction he wants it to go.”
He said the TTDBF is a subsidiary of the international federation and has responsibility for the development of dragon boating in TT.
The TTDBF, since its inception, hosts four regattas yearly, with the largest being held in October. The federation now hosts a Point Fortin Borough Day regatta, a Tobago Regatta on Labour Day weekend and the Inter-Schools Regatta.
Dalip said the federation saw school’s involvement as integral to the sport’s growth and development. “We saw the development of the sport as being dependent on getting young people involved. This is a new sport for them, it is dynamic, physical but also requires a lot of discipline and team work. So our school division started in 2009 and today we have about 14 schools.”
He said the federation tried to have the sport distributed throughout the island as much as possible but getting boats remains a problem because of the cost of freight. “The limitation is having enough boats to go around.”
Since the federation’s start the group has participated in two World Boat Racing Championships, one in Tampa in 2011 and Szeged, Hungary in 2013 with, “notable success,” Dalip said.
Some of the federation’s clubs have participated in international dragon boating events in Canada, Malaysia, Italy and China, with the most recent being participation in the Pan American Club Crew Championships, in Ponce, Puerto Rico and TT being handed the baton to host the championships in 2019. While there are World and Pan American Championships, it is not yet an Olympic sport.
Initially, with the growing Chinese community in TT, the federation had Chinese district racing which involved the growing community but it eventually petered out. However, other Chinese interest groups such as The Chinese Association are now involved in the growing sport.
There are no other Caribbean islands practising dragon boating but, Dalip said, the Jamaicans seem to be the next likely ones to adopt the sport.
For Dalip and the other board members, a major wish is to one day host a World Championship in TT. The board also hopes to acquire a home in the North Western peninsula. Personally, Dalip, one day, wants to have a breast cancer survivor dragon boat movement in the country. Having experienced a similar event in 2015, he cried to see how much the sport had empowered the survivors.
“Through this sport they found sisterhood, they found community. Some of them who had done nothing physical in their life were now racing hard. That is a gift I want to give to our women,” he said.
The federation hosted a Duanwu Jie Festival on May 30. It used the day to showcase dragon boating and some of the Chinese culture at the Trinidad and Tobago Sailing Association at Welcome Bay, Chaguaramas.