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by: Jim Clark

It has to be a cold day in you know where for the Golden Dragons to stay out of the water. A blizzard, maybe, or freezing rain might cause these hardy dragon boat paddlers to skip a practice. Otherwise, there they are every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, year-round, propelling their dragon boats up and down the Willamette River.


The Golden Dragons is a Portland dragon boat paddling club of about 130 men and women, all seniors. The youngsters in this group are at least 50. The eldest, at 94, is Al Bailey of Southeast Portland, who joined the Golden Dragons in 2000, four years after the club was founded.

'My wife had had passed away, and I was looking for something to do for exercise, and I saw this in a Portland parks bureau bulletin,' he says.

Bailey, who was in the wholesale plumbing business before he retired, gets exercise, all right, but the club is more than a way to stay fit. 'It's the sociability, the camaraderie,' he says. 'We have lots of potlucks and social gatherings.'

And there are competitions. In addition to the club's thrice-weekly practices, about 90 members compete in dragon boat races throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

'We try to have two teams, a mixed team and a women's team. We don't have enough members for a men's team,' says Rick McLaughlin, 65, the club's property manager and a team captain.

'Some events are for seniors only, but we race against all ages,' McLaughlin says, adding the Golden Dragons sometimes outrace younger teams. 'In Boston we beat the Harvard team. Some of our racers are very accomplished and highly skilled.'

But you don't have to be a super-athlete to paddle a dragon boat, club members say.

'It's all about timing,' says McLaughlin, a remodeling contractor from Northeast Portland who has been active in water sports since he was a kid. He joined the Golden Dragons about three years ago. His wife, Colleen, 67, has been a member for about five years; she is now the club's commodore (president).

Debbie Hanavan, who joined the club about five years ago, says she was 'just generally athletic' when she was younger. The 64-year-old retired nurse who lives in Southwest Portland rode horses and ran when she was growing up, but there were few girls' sports when she was in school, she says.

With dragon boat paddling, 'You start really slow and you take lots of breaks because you work your whole body,' Hanavan says. 'You paddle from your core. Your arms are just an appendage to position the paddle.'

Many club members take dragon boat paddle clinics to learn new paddling techniques, she says.

Dragon boat racing can bring out your competitive streak, Hanavan says. 'Lots of people don't think they're competitive, and then they get here and find they are.'

About the Golden Dragons

• Founded in 1996, the Golden Dragons PDX club welcomes new members. The club holds fundraisers for its events, but members more or less pay their own way through dues and fees.

• For more information, visit the club website at goldendragonspdx.com.

• Dragon boat events on the club's 2011 calendar include the Rainier/Tacoma Dragon Boat Festival in Washington in May; Portland Rose Festival's dragon boat races in June; dragon boat festivals in Colorado in July and in Victoria, B.C., Canada, in August; and the Portland Dragon Boat Races in September.

About dragon boat racing

• Rooted in ancient China, dragon boat racing has spread throughout the world in modern times. The International Dragon Boat Federation holds world championships in such far-flung cities as Shanghai, Berlin and Cape Town (Tampa Bay, Fla., hosts this year's championships). The United States Dragon Boat Federation is the sport's governing body in this country.

• So what is a dragon boat? It's a long, narrow, human-powered vessel, usually with 20 paddlers, one caller (or drummer) and one tiller (who steers), though boat and crew sizes vary. Traditional dragon boats are made of wood and weigh about 1,300 pounds, while sleek, modern fiberglass boats weigh about half that, says Rick McLaughlin of the Golden Dragons PDX club. Boats generally are outfitted with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails for competitions.

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