Dragon boat races rush into White River State Park in Indianapolis

The first White River Dragon Boat Race will take place on September 29th at White River State Park.

On the last Saturday in September, four 44-foot dragons will cut through the White River, with 22 sweaty souls riding on each animal.

But don’t worry – these “victims” have chosen to be there. And many of them are already survivors.

The White River Alliance and Indy SurviveOars, an organization that unites breast cancer survivors in a dragon boat team, are jointly hosting the first White River Dragon Boat Race and Festival on September 29th.

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The opening ceremonies begin at 8:00 am and the races begin at 8:30 am, said Jill Hoffmann, executive director of the White River Alliance. The celebrations end in the afternoon. All proceeds are shared between the White River Alliance and Indy SurviveOars.

And there’s still time for you and 20 of your closest friends to join the fun – but registration ends September 12th.

The first White River Dragon Boat Race will take place on September 29th at White River State Park.

What is dragon boat racing?

If you imagine 20-foot-tall dragon-hulled ships plowing through the White River, you are half right.

The boats are slim, 44-foot carbon fiber rowing boats with heads shaped after Chinese dragons.

Dragon boat racing debuted in China 2,000 years ago, but it has only caught on in the US for the past 50 years. The International Dragon Boat Federation operates in 89 countries and territories nationwide.

A subgroup of dragon boaters – breast cancer survival teams – will play a big role at the first Indy festival, Hoffmann said.

Indiana local team Indy SurviveOars, training at Geist Reservoir from May to October, recently ranked 30th out of 123 breast cancer survival teams from around the world in a tournament in Florence, Italy.

“We loved it,” said Elaine Shea, president of Indy SurviveOars. “We played in the top 1/3 against teams from places like Florida that can train all year round.”

The breast cancer community tends to dragon boating, Shea said, because the sport encourages women to do good upper body exercise and is a powerful source of camaraderie.

“Studies have shown that the recurrence and mortality of survivors who are physically active decreases by 30 to 40 percent,” she said.

The Indy SurviveOars team has between 60 and 70 paddlers on their list, Shea said. The number fluctuates because some members are taking leave due to treatment.

The team typically participates in between three and four competitions a year, from races nearby in Chicago and Akron to international races like the one in Italy earlier this year.

The SurviveOars are currently all women, but the team is open to breast cancer survivors of any gender, Shea said.

She, too, expects a strong presence from breast cancer survivors at the Indy event. The SurviveOars will board two boats, and a sister team from Illinois will also make the trek to Circle City.

But don’t let the experienced racing drivers put you off.

Seasoned racers – including the breast cancer survivor boats – and community teams will compete in two separate divisions to ensure novice and seasoned paddlers don’t compete, Hoffmann said. The skilled racing drivers and breast cancer survival boats will compete in the same division.

The first White River Dragon Boat Race will take place on September 29th at White River State Park.

How to win in dragon boating

The hardest part of dragon boat racing, Shea said, isn’t endurance – it’s about establishing and maintaining a rhythm with the other 21 team members.

The SurviveOars practice three times a week to work on the synchronization. This is the X factor that gets her over the edge in competitions, she said.

“Our paddlers are watching the person’s hands diagonally in front of them,” Shea said. “You want your hands to go up and down at the same time.”

Paddling isn’t a picnic either, of course – the trick is using your legs and core, Shea said.

“Using only your arms will make you too tired,” she said.

And avoiding fatigue is key in a case where the boats travel 250 meters in about 60 seconds and go up at about 14 km / h (so a bird scooter could outrun a dragon boat, but the ship would still lap a handlebar).

Each swimming monster seats 20 paddlers two in a row on 10 rows of seats, with a drummer (who weighs less than 160 pounds) in the front of the boat and a steerer in the back, for a total of 22 members.

Why are there only 21 slots per team when you sign up?

The 22nd person, Hoffmann said, will be provided by the seller who owns the boats. He or she controls the dragon boat.

But in a race where boats cross two, three, or four, the drummers are the linchpin of every team. They keep the 20 paddlers in sync. The only problem?

“You don’t want to listen too closely to the drummer because you might be hearing the wrong drum,” Shea said.

The first White River Dragon Boat Race will take place on September 29th at White River State Park.

If you just wanna watch

Even if you’re not ready to jump into a dragon boat, stop by the riverside between New York Street Bridge and the pedestrian bridge between White River State Park and the Indianapolis Zoo for the spectacle.

The four boats will be anchored on the river in the three or four days leading up to the festival, Hoffmann said, so that the teams can practice.

On race day there will be food and beer trucks in a tent city, what Hoffmann calls a “giant tailgating experience” on the west side of the river.

When you’re ready to try dragon boating, you have until September 12th to assemble a team of 21. The cost is $ 1,500 per boat, or approximately $ 71.50 per person. Breast cancer boats cost $ 500. All participants receive a T-shirt, said Hoffmann. You can register on the Allianz website.

The first, second, and third place team will be honored, as will the team with the “Most Outstanding Team Spirit,” chosen based on tent decorations, team costumes, and drummer enthusiasm and songs (so maybe recruit a Girl Scout camp aide or an aspiring Broadway Star).

There are few rules: all Community and Competitive Division teams must have a minimum of 8 female paddlers, with the exception of the breast cancer survival teams, which can all be female.

Every boat is guaranteed to sail at least twice, said Hoffmann, and more often if they keep winning. The number of races will be determined promptly based on the number of registered teams.

And don’t worry if a dragon boat doesn’t collect dust in your garage – Hoffmann said a seller will provide all of the boats.

Email IndyStar reporter Sarah Bahr at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ smbahr14.