36 'dragons' stage fiery competition Race: To help mark Catholic Charities' 75th anniversary, three dozen Baltimore companies battle each other in Chinese dragon boats at the Inner Harbor.

September 20, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Hal Smith admits it's a little different, the idea of Catholic Charities' celebrating its 75th anniversary by having Baltimore-area companies and institutions race Chinese dragon boats in the Inner Harbor.

But Smith, the charities' executive director, has a good reason for the seemingly culture-crossed event.

"I was in Hong Kong 10 years ago when I first saw these boats, and what struck me was the amount of teamwork it took to paddle them," Smith said. "If everyone works together, it goes well. If not, it doesn't. It's a good lesson for Baltimore."

Besides, Smith added, Catholic Charities got its start near the harbor, helping immigrants who had just arrived in America. What better way to mark its 75th anniversary than with a return to its roots?

All day yesterday, 36 Baltimore companies -- including Bell Atlantic, KPMG Peat Marwick and The Baltimore Sun -- brought one of the world's oldest athletic competitions to the city's waterfront.

"This took about eight months of planning and a lot of committed people, but it has been fun," said Dave Cronin, executive vice president of First National Bank of Maryland, who served as race chairman. "I can't think of a better way to get this many people involved."

Each of the 36 teams had 20 paddlers, a steersman in the boat's stern and a drummer up front, whose job it was to set the pace for the paddlers with a steady beat. Eight team members had to be women. Each company teamed up with one of the programs that Catholic Charities operates in Maryland.

T-shirts and team chants helped each team get psyched for the event. The Archdiocese of Baltimore also brought along a spirited group of cheerleaders. One group had its female team members wear halos; the men wore devil's horns.

The competition was set up as a double-elimination tournament, with four boats in each round.

Some companies practiced for months before the competition, turning clerks, secretaries and account executives into once-a-week mariners. Others hardly practiced.

The art of rowing

A dragon boat resembles a long canoe with a dragon's head on the bow and a tail on the stern.

To get the 40-foot boat moving quickly, all of the paddlers must raise and dip their paddles at the same time.

It's not so much about strength as about synchronization.

Done properly, it looks like all of the paddles are being operated by one person.

But when the paddlers move out of synch, as some of the worst-prepared teams did yesterday, the boat looks like a caterpillar moving along the water with its legs flailing.

The boat can veer wildly to the left or right when the paddlers aren't working together -- not exactly the kind of movement you're looking for in a 200-meter race.

Several teams crisscrossed from the starting line at the World Trade Center to the Maryland Science Center across the harbor.

A few headed out toward the Outer Harbor, though none of the boats tipped.

Rubdowns and cheers

By the end of the day, it was apparent that the best teams had worked hard on working together.

The team from Harkins Builders trained for the races as if it was going to the Olympics. Company President Blase Cooke said the team had a personal trainer help get members in shape. They practiced every Tuesday beginning in July in rowboats on a lake in Columbia. They had a massage chair on hand yesterday so paddlers could get rubdowns between races.

"We took it pretty seriously," Cooke said.

He served as his boat's drummer, which he jokingly insisted was the most important position on the team.

"We're ready for this," said Cooke.

The Harkins team cheer was another sign of how seriously the company took the competition. A line from the cheer went, "If you're in another boat, forget your water bottle. Drink the spray from our paddles, 'cause we're going full throttle."

The cheer was judged best among the teams in a separate competition.

The Harkins team easily won its first dragon boat race and narrowly captured the second.

But in the semifinals, it fell to Bell Atlantic, which won the tournament. The Baltimore Police Department was second, and Harkins third.

The Bell Atlantic team practiced only eight times, according to Collette Lao, an engineer who served as the boat's drummer. But it had the finer points of the sport mastered.

"By the fourth practice, we had the synchronization down, and we could work on other strategies," Lao said. "The most important person is actually not the drummer but the front right paddler. That's who the drummer keys off of to set the pace."

The squad had a lot of fan support, Lao said.

The company teamed up with Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen in downtown Baltimore, and dozens of staff and volunteers from that organization lined the waterfront to cheer the Bell Atlantic boat.

"We've really made a bond with them out of this partnership," Lao said.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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