Sunday, March 21, 2010

Judgement Day...

Our final practice was prefaced by some surprise news, despite the team's dismal skills at fundraising and a sponsor that got the cheapest deal in town, Claire had somehow managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat, although it wasn't really a rabbit, that would have been useless in a dragon boat, it was in fact carbon fibre paddles. Even though we had been sent an email about getting them before training (an email to which Siobhan replied with "WHOOP DEE DOO!!!!!" - I know she wasn't being sarcastic but that's how I read it, despite the exclamation marks) I still didn't really believe we were going to have them until I had one in hand.

Ever since I saw the army team with these black beauties I had looked upon them with longing, and holding one I stared lovingly (yes, I am sad) into its weird woven surface, which somehow messed with my perception of depth. In my mitt I held a blade of glory, an oar of awe, a paddle of joy... Hmmm, that sounds wrong, but not as wrong as our plan to enter a "photographic competition" that was being run with the theme of "close to the skin", or something like that. The plan hatched by the Clare and Claire was elegantly simple - we were all to wear underwear and use strategic paddle placement to hopefully create the illusion of nudity. That morning my interpretation of flesh coloured extended to a pair of pants I own that are pail yellow. By the time practice came around I couldn't figure out why I started the day believing that I was one of the Simpsons. However, these pants (which I call my happy pants at home, due to their reckless colouring and tendency for me to do a little dance when I put them on) created howls of amused revulsion, probably because they are on the wrong side of Y-front in appearance. Undergarments at the ready we loaded the boat, stripped, then paddled across the lagoon to be photographed. Pose, click, pose, click... All was going well until Robin, back in front of me with epic cockness of timing, decided that the illusion of nudity wasn't enough and the camera shouldn't be made to lie. So he stood up and liberated himself. I was scarred for life. After six weeks of dragon boating, this was the wrong kind of end that was in sight and my mind was irreparably damaged by Robin's errant arse crack.

Carbon fibre paddles are both lighter than wooden ones, as you'd expect, and cut into the water more cleanly, which probably made very little difference in my case as my angle of attack is something like the dragon boating equivalent of a belly flop, and they appeared to inspire us. Even though the practice was probably our toughest, as a boat we were clearly trying our hardest, whenever Hayden gave us a breather we'd flop around, knackered. At one point my mouth was so painfully dry I couldn't resist sucking the seawater off the back of my hand. It worked a treat, and amazingly I didn't catch anything.

One area of deficiency was our starts. When it some discussion about changing the profile of these took place a few of us chuntered that the fact that we couldn't get our simple start right suggested that we'd probably be incapable of learning another series of strokes for the start in such a small time frame. Hayden gave us a few home truths and pointed out that our starts were rubbish; we were just splashing about a lot without actually getting going. Threatened with the idea that we might have to change the configuration of paddles in our starts to something more complicated than five furiously short strokes, followed by five of increasing length, until our normal race pace was met, we improved greatly. Focused, we actually got moving and didn't just sit there in the water, splashing a lot and not getting the boat out of the water like we were meant to. Hayden also switched from being critical to telling people how well they were doing. I was a happy bunny, despite being blinded by Robin's... well, you know.

All season we struggled with the joyless task of getting our boat back in the boat shed. Somehow we always ended up with the trolley with a wonky wheel, which is a pain in a supermarket but when you're trying to get a boat that's about 40ft long into a gap that's only a little wider than it is then folk can get grumpy. But we had no such worries this time around because, instead of the usual boat shed we wrestle with, we had to put the boat in the upper shed, so we had to go up some steps, so no trolley to worry about, oh, hang on! Many hands to make light work but after paddling for an hour, tensions could rise and some stern words have been shouted in this phase of the evening, some stern words indeed. However, despite having hated putting my bike away in the garage as a kid the boat shed experience never really riled me much. However, I'll agree with anyone that labels the upper shed shenanigans as arse.

First we had to empty a whole load of water out of the boat, there's always water in the boat at the end but this time we couldn't just bail it because it was in the buoyancy compartment (!). To do this the boat had to be turned over, a routine that involved one of the other sweeps shouting at us to turn the boat. With people on either side of the boat this inevitably lead to Laurel and Hardy-esque foolishness, with no one wanting to lower their side, everyone lifted and the boat rose into the air. More shouting to turn and surprisingly still more lifting sans turning, funny that.

Eventually we got the bastard rotated, after one side somehow decided to lower. Once upended we had to hoist our end over our heads to drain the compartment at the other end. Of course, it was at this point that a water filled buoyancy aid raised two important points:

1. Not so buoyant if we capsize, eh?
2. Surely that was the reason for the poor starts. Saturday would see on that score.

Holding the boat aloft would have been a mare if it weren't for the fact that we had a giant to help us. Bryan is incredibly tall and clearly strong, not unlike the fellow from the Princess Bride. He stood under the boat and took more than his fair share of the load. Twas a bless'd relief.

Then, with the water gone, we had to turn it once more. The silent movie theme returned and again "turn" was the sum total of the order, it would have been quick to write the speech caption for our Harold Lloyd classic, if nothing else. But this time around there was a dramatic twist. When we finally started to turn we got over excited and the whole thing lurched in one big twist, swinging down and smacking Hannah right on the shin. Being staunch and impassive in the face of pain seems to be Hannah's thing, and she was no different in the face of this almighty whack. Presumably it got her because she was at the widest point in the boat. We all heard it but incredibly nothing was broken, although there must have been a splinter or two smacked free.

As quickly as possible we put the boat to bed and I got on with the important task of feeling nervous about festival day, which was now only three days away.

Before the fun day I carbo loaded on chips and bread but before the proper festival Rach looked into the details of what you should really do. Unsurprisingly, chips and bread weren't top of the carbo menu, the usual pasta suggestion occupied that slot, but it seems the thing is a lot more complicated than just eating a fat load of carbs. I would go into the details of the process here but I can't remember them. Needless to say I stuck to eating a fat load of carbs and pretended it would do the job. Not that it mattered much, another thing Rach found out was that carb loading is designed for endurance athletes who exercise for more than an hour at a time - although a race can feel like a long time, at 80-odd seconds it still never feels quite that bad.

Obviously, me and Rach were nervous the night before race day so we unwound with a bit of name calling and falling out. We were fine the next day, loaded up some food we'd made into the car we'd thankfully bought only a month earlier and trundled out into a day so glorious it was hard to imagine it was later in the summer than the arctic fun day. Frank Kitts park, a pleasant patch of green near Wellington's waterfront had been transformed into row upon row of voluminous tents, one for each team and ours was as close to the boat loading lagoon as any. It was luxury but there was little time to enjoy it as we were racing at 9am, the first warm up race out of the blocks. But some of us were missing... Dave, my row 8 compadre was nowhere to be seen and Bryan, the man in possession of our paddles was also amiss. We could cope with a man or two down for the first race, as it didn't count for anything, but I did the maths and calculated that the absence of paddles might prove to be sub optimal.

Luckily, Bryan arrived! Sadly, Dave did not.

We paddled out of the lagoon and found out that the water was a bit on the choppy side, which was highly invigorating in the amazing, clear blue, sun drenched setting. Making it to the start line in good time we lolled around in the water, enjoying the site of other boats trying to manoeuvre into the position and being a bit shocked by the breeze that was blowing them sideways. Despite the wind we were all in position bang on time. We sat there, primed like explosive aquatic ninjas, or something. HOOOOONNNNNKKKKK!! Went the air-horn and paddle, paddle, paddle went we. "Stop! Back paddle!" Screamed Hayden! "I didn't say paddles ready!" Came the less furious but more panicked call from the shore. I don't know what actually happened but I bet it went something like this: "I'm playing with the button on the air-horn. Hey look, you can put quite a lot of pressure on it without it going off. It's got quite a lot of resistance, you really can push on it quite hard, can't you HOOOOONNNNNKKKKK!! Shit!" Yep, I'd have tried to make out it was a test too. Under Hayden's furiously hollered commands we back paddled to the line. Then we were off again. Unsurprisingly we did a worse start the second time around, although we didn't really have to back paddle that far after the aborted start either, so it wasn't fatigue from wasted progress that was the issue. Once we were going we paddled like crazy. Ah, the old spectre of rapid paddling, where we tired ourselves out before the finish line and ended... 4th, with the NZ Army taking their usual 1st place. Of course, the rest mentioned that this was Dragon Flys tradition, and we were missing Dave.

Waiting to leave the boat we were alongside one of the other teams that had just been loaded, it was the CanSurvive team and one of them asked me how our race went and what the conditions were like. Typically race knackered I was responsive enough but completely and utterly failed to wish them luck with their race, which is cretinous when you consider the fact that the whole team is composed of survivors of cancer. It's one thing to enjoy beating them in a race (I think it was their team I have mentioned before) but it's another not to give them the respect they deserve.

With it being such a hot day we were naturally blessed with hot showers to rinse off in... I'm being sarcastic but they were really nice and it was great to get the salt off. A team debrief covered the usual stuff - stop paddling so fast you fools! Then water and a banana and some random lounging about as we had time to rest before our next race, and I used it wisely to take remedial action and apply suntan lotion before I took a beating from New Zealand's turbo charged solar powers. I believe I even watched another race, which was the only one I caught all day. Using the power of mobile phone someone found out that Dave had slept through his alarm. Clearly, those that are old hands at dragon boating don't have the same concerns as us first timers. No matter, Paul, an ex-army dragonista went and recruited another army man, by which I mean a powerfully built guy, not a little green plastic toy.

In the boat I noted some jigging about had taken place: Both Clare and Claire were absent on festival day and even though we were covered for bodies there had been some strange rearranging going down in the first race. Kent and Robin had moved forward and Jamie and Phil had moved backward. In the practice Jamie was in front of me but now the pair had swapped over, so Phil was in front of me. Hooking around Phil's leg was something I'd done several times in the past and I knew it was something I didn't really like, there was just something far too big about his calf and I tried to lock in with trepidation. I was so focused on this and the start that I didn't notice we had friends, Ricus and Yvette, on the wharf, saying hello to both me and Rach. When I did notice I said a quick hello of my own then got my eyes back in the boat as fast as possible.

This time there was no false start and I hacked into the water for all I was worth with the short start strokes. Then, stretching out into proper race strokes - Ping! My front foot slipped off the seat support and I crashed to the deck, well, technically I crashed onto Phil's foot. For a moment I had no idea what to do, I was kind of shell-shocked. I think I tried a stroke from the position in which I had landed, Hayden must have been shaking his head with dismay. But Phil's persistent "ow, ow, owing" brought me round. Trying not to rock the boat I hauled myself back into position. Good, all sorted, phew, let's do some - Ping! Slam! Back on the floor!

I'm pleased to say it didn't happen a third time. I don't know how much of the race I wasn't paddling for but a conservative estimate would be 10 seconds out of 82. On the plus side I had plenty of energy for the power calls where we all had to dig deep and really reach forward with our strokes. At 1:22 it was a great race for the boat, if not for me, or Phil's foot. Hanson, our military ringer surely contributed to a time that gave us a solid 2nd place.

A bit of socialising with Ricus and Yvette and some nuts helped to distract me from thinking about the next race too much but in no time we were making the walk over to the loading zone once more. Sat at the start line those of us new to the sport were clearly nervous, I know this about myself for obvious reasons and I know it about Siobhan and Rach behind me because they exchanged "I'm nervous"es while I desperately tried to ignore them both for fear it would make me worse, even writing about it now I feel like puking with anxiety. Dave was back in the boat and this was the quarter final, but we didn't feel as potent as we had in the heat and the end was a random blur. I thought we were third. We cheered the other boats and we paddled in. Even at the start line we knew that taking 1st in the race was less than likely, the Fresh Off The Boat team were massive machine people, with huge muscles on muscles. Although, they needed that power as all that beef brings a boat low in the water, to the extent that they had to bail out water even before the start. Our assumptions were correct, team FOTB took first by a wide margin. Walking back to the tent we consulted the newly posted times for our race, well, others in the team did, I didn't have my glasses on. Hot off the press, we took 2nd! by 0.04 seconds. As suspected, the time was also slower than our previous race. However, it was still good enough to put us in the Open Division Championship, a step up in grouping from the previous year!

I felt great after that race and heading into the lunch break I could taste both sizzling sausages on the air and a medal.

After popping to the supermarket for some salad and seeing some of the women's Olympic curling final on the TV in there (weird on such a summers day) I heartily scoffed enough lunch to fuel me up then went for a wander through the village of tents. Passing the army tent I was aghast and impressed to see they had a masseuse or masseur, I can't remember the sex because my mind was swamped by jealousy, forget the fact that it was only $10 to visit the public massage tent. I decided to go and grab Rach, so she could be aghast too. The atmosphere of this temporary community was great, with teams hanging out in front of their tents, the sun beating down and sausages sizzling on barbecues everywhere, some were even using the designated barbecuing tent, which was kitted out with a wide variety of beaten, battered old looking fire extinguishers. Amongst them (the sausage cooks, not the fire extinguishers) was Baz, a fencer we know, who gave Rach a hug over the hotplate of the barbecue, somehow neither was burned.

The afternoon beckoned with two races, a semi final and a final. However, due to the lack of boats in our class (which was crazy people with private entries, not corporate sponsorship) the semi was the same boats as the final, only with us racing for which lane we were to get. Again we were told to make our strokes long and deep, not quick and shallow, again we were told to reach further on the power calls, not go quicker. We failed to manage this as a team and, probably as a result of the food in our belies and the length of the lunchtime downtime we managed to post a slower time than our quarter final. We came fifth, so we were to get the choppiest lane of the five in the final and the knowledge that we were working backwards, in terms of pace.

Sadly, Rach was working that evening and had to miss the final, however, from our point of view it was actually just the same race again, only this time we took even longer to reach the finish line. Ah, if only the day had ended at lunch time, although you could say that about any day that involves effort, really. It's well worth noting that our best race was the one where I spent a good portion of time (infinity it seemed like to me) thrashing around on the floor of the boat. My view is that Hanson brought both considerable power and a sense of pace to the back of the boat but it could also be viewed that the boat was better off without me trailing my paddle in the water. I'd also like to mention that, despite the disappointment at the end it was a glorious day and I got to see one of the manta rays that everyone is always telling me are always in the lagoon but which I never seem to see. Nor were we one of the two boats that got swamped and disgorged their crew ignominiously into the drink.

But the races weren't the end of it...

At the award ceremony on the evening I discovered that I am really quite competitive, an award ceremony where medals were handed out to everyone except us, or at least it seemed that way. Those beautiful shiny medallions swung like gleaming beacons of everythingness, dangling from necks all around me. This sight made my own collar feel naked, light and unadorned, as was my heart and my soul. I wanted to snatch medals from passing necks and steal off into the night with them, hunker down under an overpass, behold their glinting awesomeness in the moonlight, cradle them in my arms and coo.

That said, Claire did win best manager, which was entirely fair, although she wasn't able to pick it up because she was in Australia. We should also have gotten a reward for being the most prompt team at the start line and generally being nice and helpful, but if we did, I missed it.

All in all it was a fine journey, a great trip and now it's not on I miss it. For so much of the season I'd been thinking I wouldn't do it again next year, thinking it's something you only do the first time because you don't realise how hard it's going to be. I couldn't understand what mechanism drew all but the fittest people back. But after the race day, after the event of it, the team feeling and the pressure of competition, which was something new to me, I understand why others do go back year after year.

I hope they'll have me back next year.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


The big announcement of the post casino night was that our sponsors are swines and we raised bugger all money, which is a bit of a downer when you're shy of a set of paddles - some of the team have paddles from previous dragon boating endeavours and those of us that are oar-less can use the bog standard efforts that live in the boat shed, but there are much better paddles out there and it seems that you are allowed to blame your tools in this sport.

However, to put the paddles problem into perspective there was much more tragic news. The previous day the body of a drowned teenage schoolgirl been recovered from the water but we only found out when Amy told us that the boat of schoolgirls that she skippers didn't want to go out on the water. Who could blame them. Apparently there was no suspicion of foul play, but there seems little consolation in that.

We ourselves had a minute's silence out on the water, as a mark of respect and the weather reflected this sad occasion with a veil of fog across the whole harbour. This created an eerie but serene mood, especially as we sat quietly in the boat, our paddles uncharacteristically still during our uncommon silence. Even during our hard work the mist offered up a strange calmness, which was almost powerful enough to make me forget the exertion when we paddled out, warming up with another double traverse of Lambton Harbour, a place that's now as familiar as any to me, but which seemed completely altered in the haze. Paddling through the water at perhaps our slowest pace ever we could have been in a pirate film, tentatively but doggedly making our way through the water, every sound deadened except the lapping of the water around the boat. There seemed every chance of a ghost ship slipping into view at any time.

Of course, we were there to practice, and practice we did, even past breaking point. I can't quite remember the circumstances but we'd been paddling up and down, doing some starts, some race pace lengths too, when we came across another boat. "Who wants to race?" asked Hayden. "Not me," I said, but dragon boating isn't a democracy, so we lined up, readied our paddles and... we were clearly far too knackered to race, and we knew it before we went. We limped along, or at least I did. In fact, I was out of sorts all practice: My back screamed with each twist action, my legs ached, which just makes me grumpy, but worst of all I kept whacking my thumb against the side of the boat. Something was clearly wrong, I have a tendency (through bad technique) to catch the side of the boat anyway and my thumb has been known to clip the side once in a while but these were big hits, smacking my dear digit between gunwale and paddle, sometimes more than once in a length. The impacts were certainly in double figures. I was like my cat, no matter how many times I did this foolish painful thing I didn't seem to learn not to do it. I could have chucked the bloody paddle out of the boat when I did it three times in ten strokes.

Oddly, even though I finished with a really soar thumb, my third finger seemed to be fine - who'd have thought that digits could be so mysterious.

Beautiful setting, sad circumstances and a terrible innings.

Snake Eyes Watching You...

I thought seventeen was bad, but the next week...

Fourteen! What le coq! Pardon my French.

My mind was filled with many a thought along the lines of: "Where is everyone these days? Where on earth have they gone? Not to dragon boating, that's for bloody sure!" Rach was one of those missing but she wasn't very well, so that was a fair reason to miss out. And I bet everyone else had a good reason too, but we only had fourteen! As a team we were all such eager beavers at the start too, the very first practice session of the season we even had a spare paddler. We sat lower in the water back in those days too, although that just made getting the paddle out of the water harder.

Fourteen! That's the number of paddlers we had for practice on the 10th of February. Fourteen! Seventeen was bad, but fourteen! I'm not sure how many paddlers you can go out with but fourteen seems like it should be the minimum to me. Of course, the boat was somewhat spacious with six missing crew, which gave me plenty of room to slide around in. Sorry, I got carried away there, I just can't stop going on about it... Fourteen!
Heading out of the lagoon (with only FOURTEEN paddlers) we went left, as usual, towards the start line but instead of ending there Hayden turned us around and took us back across to the other side of the harbour again. Obviously he considered this was a good time to warm up with a double traverse of the harbour, our previous best distance being one traverse. Zoiks. It wasn't easy but I astonished myself by being able to manage it, even at the slow pace we took up to carry it out with. I wonder if it was this dawdling that inspired Hayden to turn us around and keep going, rather than our usual "stop, ponder, go" regime. I expect the distance we did was something like three quarters of a kilometer and I think I was probably on the edge of my endurance. One of the other sweeps once told me that, when he was paddling, they used to go around the fountain and back for their warm up, which I think must be somewhere between 2 and 3 kilometres. I couldn't be more thankful that I didn't have to do the round the fountain race.
Whatever the motivation for the extra distance, Hayden's hope was clearly to toughen us up for race day and with only a few more practices left I guess every minute of our precious hour long session really did count. To help get our race spirits going we cruised up alongside another boat, full of competitive looking schoolkids and Hayden challenged them to a race. What? No! Racing! That's madness. I have little idea how the race went but we lost, although not by too much. That was no shock at all but, in a rare moment of weakness, Hayden told us we did well for a bunch of unfit old folk of reduced numbers - I think the actual quote was "You did well against them, you really did, they were younger and fitter." I was so taken aback that I think I might actually have said "thank you" out loud.

The following Saturday was our super gambleathon casino night. Each of us had been charged with flogging 5 tickets at a cost of $25 each, nearly all of us failed. Personally, I thought I had a really good chance of shifting them in a workplace of 100 guys but the fact that it landed on Saturday the 13th of February may have been an issue: "Come on love, I've got some tickets for a posh doo, get your best togs on and let's go play poker." Actually, that doesn't sound too bad to me, but I guess it was a tricky sell on the home front. However, we had some good friends cave in to our ticket peddling so, including the tickets we sold to ourselves, we shifted 60% of our allotment. Even telling people at work that we needed the money to buy paddles, which was true, didn't raise the sympathy bar, although the idea of us competing sans paddles did raise a smile or two. Bastards.

With four unsold tickets I had to pop down to the Four Kings to turn the tickets in for door sales. Walking into the pub I stuck with my previous week's form and completely failed to recognise (less bad) Clare outside of training. Actually, that's not 100% true, I thought it was her but I looked over and, she claims, she looked back and smiled. I contest this version of events m'lord. For sure, I looked over, and for sure she reacted but I say her face was more one of "who's this pervert looking at me?" Luckily, as I went sailing past, trying to be nonchalant in the face of the strange look LBC (I have no idea of the origins of the nickname) had cast in my direction I was called back by both her and Captain Claire. As I was already in for a feeling foolish penny it soon became obvious that there was a feeling foolish pound that I had been put in for too. I rue the moment I said "I don't have to go for half an hour." A tutu was produced from a bag, as was a long, flowing blonde wig, and some Dragon Flys deely-boppers, which I had to put on. I was then sent forth onto the streets of Wellington to hand out fliers for our evening of gambling, in the hope of generating door sales for our bulging stack of spare tickets. I'm not convinced that the wig and tutu combo was really the right message to be sending out. People looked at me rather strangely and as soon as they did I would swoop on them to stuff a flier in their mitts. As an illustration of how this costume may have been slightly off topic, one of the people I bumped into was Lorna, one of our own team and I couldn't convince her to come.

All the time I was doing this I was fairly confident that Claire, Clare, Jenna and Siobhan were probably having a lot more success than me at drumming up genuine business, rather than simply being an "I got this flier off a bespeckled boy in a wig and tutu" tale to tell down the pub (one without a casino night, I presume) later.

After picking up Rach and Ronel and returning to the pub I was pressed, once again, into walking the streets but this time I was not alone, as I was in the company of Claire, Clare and Siobhan, who, it turns out, possibly weren't any luckier than me. As a pack we had one success, where Siobhan collared a guy, got him interested then pretty much pushed him down the steps to the gambling. I'm not sure if he stayed or not.

Down in the gambling den however, things were pretty interesting. For the cost of a ticket we got a bunch of chips and a drink. Pint in hand I set out to find what I could lose my chips on: There was one roulette table, with a wheel of such incredible miniatureness it was hard to see where the ball was landing. There was also two blackjack tables, which were fairly popular, and two poker tables, one of which looked very serious (not a wise option for me) and one of which looked more inviting. In the middle of the room stood a craps table. I rejected the blackjack because there weren't any seats and the poker because I get lost in the betting. This left me to wander over to the craps table, where the croupier was trying to explain the game to one lone potential punter. Me and the other punter stood there for minutes trying to get a handle on the rules. Eventually the croupier gave the other punter a chip to place an opening bet so he would roll the dice and we could learn on the job, as it were. Once we were playing it became much easier to pick up and a crowd started to appear, including our good friends Pete, Gareth and Dorit. Gareth and Dorit had a little blast on the craps but were soon drawn away by blackjack. Me and Pete though, well, we were kinda welded to that table all night. I had great luck as a roller and my games went on for ages, although there was still plenty of opportunity for losing chips - one guy lost over 8,000 on one of my rolls. At ten dollars for 10,000 worth of chips that's a bit over a pint's worth! Heady bets for sure.

But why care how many chips you have left? Well, there were ten prizes that night, each in a sealed envelope. The ten players with the biggest haul at the end of the night got to choose an envelope each. Of the prizes on offer the best were the three cash prizes, two of 100 dollars and one of 200 dollars. Of the ten top gamblers three were Dragon Flys. Can you guess where this is going? All three cash prizes went to the Dragon Flys contenders! What are the chances of that happening?

However, the evening wasn't an unmitigated success, because it cost money to put it on and we pretty much sold enough tickets to cover the cost of running it, perhaps even a slight loss. Claire may have known on the night, but she didn't tell. As Lemmy once sang "Seven or eleven, snakes eyes watching you!" Yes, it would appear that snake eyes were watching us, on the first roll, which is a bad thing. But on the plus side I now understand what this means, rather than assuming it to be a reptile infested convenience store, so it was all win for me.

I wonder if Claire was like Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and put all our money on us to win the dragon boat festival. I hope not.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Know You From Somewhere...

After the faulty toaster like shock of the fun day we were back in the boat again within a few days.

Hayden was quick to tell us that we could have done better. Well done, here, have a shiny shilling you eagle eyed Baker Street Irregular. Of course, no one disagreed, especially not those that didn't turn up for practice. No matter, we were a happy crew of 17, which required a bit of jigging around to balance the boat. Rach was put one row forward of her normal spot; this meant she got to kneel for the first time (the back row being too narrow to facilitate such a stance) so she got to use her knee pad for the first time (I hate to think how much kneeling would grind me down without a good thick volleyball kneepad on) and smash her shin of the seat in front (which seems to be the expert technique). Dave and myself (normally in row 7) swapped with Robin and Kent, so me and Rach were in consecutive rows for the first time - she got told off fairly quickly for touching me on the back "Any more of that and I'll separate you two!" said Hayden, even though he put us that close in the first place. I expect he was half joking, but he has the oral equivelent of a poker face, so I will never know.

Being shoved back in the boat had a big benefit for me: Robin sits a long way foward, which, as I have mentioned, creates high tension (fear) if he's behind you. I too like to sit quite far forward, which might just be an attempt to run away form Robin, and this hasn't always keyed in with the person in front of me, resulting in the odd bit of impromptue back stroking. But with Rob in the seat in front I had plenty of space to reach forward under his outside arm when plunging my paddle into the water. More importantly, Rob wears nice soft diving boots and keeps his kneeling leg away from the side of the boat, which allowed me my most solid resting position yet for my forward foot. Better still, the tight squeeze between Rob's foot and the side of the boat meant my foot was going nowhere, and neither was the rest of me. I felt a little stretched but, for the first time on the right hand side of the boat, I felt genuinely locked in.

Going full out for a race length (which is just short of infinity, it seems) I got to really focus on my paddling, rather than how much I was slipping around the boat, which was awesome. However, I'd just like to make it clear that my poorness at locking in against the side of the boat is not the reason for my previous failings, indeed it might simply be a symptom of my general failness. To illustrate: Even though I was locked in, towards the end of one of our practice race lengths (actually, quite a long way from the end but I'm sure it was past halfway) I ended up panting like a chain smoking beagle after a trip through duty free and a vigorous walk to the terminal exit. I was gasping hard. I must have sounded bad because Robin leant back and Rach leant forward, both worried I was going to fall out of the boat, or need resucitating, or both. Lock or no lock dragon boating never gets easier but, even with the hyperventilation, this was the first session where I didn't collapse before we were told we were allowed too. I was pretty pleased with this, as we did some hard work and the stupid third finger on my right hand was murder.

After every training session the team goes to the pub, in fact they go to the pub that sponsors us, the Four Kings. However, things generally don't line up for me and Rach and we have to scurry off for some reason or other. Despite this, bumping into team mates seemed to be the thing for days after February's first outing. First I was looking at salad in the supermarket when I heard a "Hello" behind me. That's a familiar voice, I thought, so I turned around but I couldn't see anyone I knew. I must have had a rather blank look on my face... for a while... it seemed liked several... seconds... passed... Then I realised Siobhan was in front of me. She probably did a little wave and said hello again to draw my attention. This might sound pretty stupid of me but she was in disguise: She was wearing normal clothes, her hair was down and she wasn't carrying a paddle. It was an impressive transformation, worthy of the Saint. Then we bumped into Siobhan again, plus Captain Claire and Lorna (the only new starter who doesn't seem to get told off) at Wellington's One Love music festival, we knew they would be there but we didn't actually expect to see them. According to Claire we "look so different outside of training", which made me think the same as Siobhan when I didn't recognise her: God, I must look rough when I'm dragon boating!

Finally we bumped into Lucy, although we didn't know her name was Lucy until after we all broke down in a big old mutual 'I have no idea what your name is' group apology. We were all mighty relieved to be in the same camp and Rach and Lucy ended up showing each other their boating bruises - Rach had a wicked one on her right side, caused by hitting the gunwale as she reaches forward with each stroke and Lucy had one on each arm, from playing the 'six inch punch game' with Robin! It was like a really tame, not shark related version of the scene in Jaws where Quint and Hooper are comparing scars.

I mulled over my own war wounds and took the Chief Brody part.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Define Fun...

Last week's training went better than the double effort the week before, in fact it was a very gentle session. I think this was mostly down to the fact that Hayden was teaching a new sweeper (the person who holds the steering oar at the back) in our boat, so more attention was paid to them. I certainly improved but managed to strain the third finger of my right hand. I think I must have some congenital weakness in there because that finger used to go all strange (like didn't work) with a few hours of mountain biking. I still stopped a couple of times but Hayden did shout "good recovery Jon!" at one point when I'd slipped around the boat, was completely out of position and stopped to adjust but got my paddle back in time with the rest pretty quickly. If you do stop, getting it back into the water is tricky at best. Of course, what he really meant was "thanks for not stopping for too long!"

Then, on Sunday, it was the "fun day". I was convinced it was going to be cancelled, it was seriously windy overnight and when I was chucking stuff in the car it started to rain. But no text came from Claire (the team captain) saying it was off so we headed into town. And it was still on! On a drizzling Sunday morning we amassed, trying to find places to shelter and not get wet - funny considering the inevitable splashing. But the water in the southern end of the harbour was indeed calm - the southerly wind not having enough time or distance from shore to gouge it up into waves.

We were in the first race, at nine o'clock and although we didn't help carry the boats out of the shed we did, somehow, end up being the only team that held the boats on the slipway, stopping them all smashing into each other. That was a pretty good warm up in itself, as the wind really could get a good grip on them.
Then we were out into the water.

The drizzle meant we were wet long before we ended the paddle out to the start line.

Out in the harbour the wind made lining up even trickier and those of us that hadn't paddled in a race before discovered just how manic it can be. After paddling around for ages the officials all of a sudden adjudged we had a line and we were off. A bunch of us were taken by surprise and the start was poor. Then we went hard at a pace beyond anything we'd done before. In no time my arms were destroyed by bad technique. How far was it going to be? How long could I last? Then the end. I thought training was tough but this was much harder.

We were beaten by the army, which was inevitable considering they had carbon fibre paddles coupled with huge upper bodies. But we did beat a boat of schoolgirls.

Soaked and cold we scurried off to the just large enough tent that the organisers had provided. Then we got to stand around for quite some time, getting colder. We'd taken along quite a bit of food but I ended up eating a solitary banana. I'd found it hard and thought that the weather didn't really convey much sense of it being a 'fun day' but I was certainly a lot closer to joy on the happiness scale than many members of the team. When I asked Siobhan (another new recruit) how she'd found it she stated simply that she "hated it". She'd hated every second in fact and couldn't wait to get out of the boat. Lots of people were understandably trodden down by the combination of the wet and the cold - the southerly wind cutting through soaking cloth was particularly cooling.

In the shelter of the tent and wearing extra layers it wasn't too bad though, not compared to standing outside waiting to get in a boat. There was no other option but to jump around to keep warm, I felt like I ran on the spot for minutes on end. Finally in a boat we had a new sweep, Hayden being busy with another boat.

The plan for this race was for a slower pace with more power in the strokes. With the veterans confident that it was the way of the team to have a terrible first race I felt confident that this was going to be a good one. In all honesty, I can't remember anything about the race other than the fact that I looked up close to the end, feeling I'd put in a better performance and found that two boats had already bloody finished. I was crushed. We blamed the different sweep, knowing full well that it wasn't.

More wetness and more coldness preceded our race, specifically sitting in a boat in the lagoon waiting for a sweep, but we kept our spirits up by telling crap jokes, each receiving manic laughter. Eventually Hayden arrived in another boat and hopped over into ours. We were the last to the starting line but hopefully made some kind of amends by getting into position in double fast time. Then away, in what was surely a better start. I was going well, keeping good time but fatigue set in hard and I had to rally myself by growling an uncharacteristic "come on", not really to anyone but me. I heard the calls for more reach and think I put in deeper strokes. Towards the finish our drop in pace was painfully obvious but we crossed the line first!

Of the other teams the only one I remember is the survivors of cancer. Hey, a win's a win, and it felt good.

Clambering out of the boat the team was clearly elated, so elated in fact that six members were willing to be recruited into another boat who were down on crew and racing straight after.

All that was left was the dreaded "round the fountain" which must be about 3 kilometers in total. Luckily, one of the other teams only had a half full boat so our team decided to combine forces, meaning that half of us didn't have to do it, only stay to offer some support! Naturally, I made sure to get my sick note in. Happy and knackered I went off to get changed and when I came out, even more good news, the round the fountain had been postponed to some other time, presumably because of the weather, so no guilt even.

Oh, but that means I still have to do it... damn...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's already halfway through this week so I best had write about last week…

Prince William was in town last Monday - laying a wreath at the war memorial, opening a new building and then doing a walkabout. It was poor weather for it though, really grey and kind of rainy. However, as the day wore on and the hour approached for both dragon boating and for HRH to have a barbecue with the Prime Minister (that should be a joke, but it isn’t) the weather got all sunny and pleasant!

In fact, it got quite hot. Not that such things actually meant I would stay dry - I noticed in my first session that the guy two rows in front can kick up a ton of spray, enough to reach me, although I generally settle for dowsing myself.

Mindful of having worn out my arms before we finished in the first session I decided to focus on technique and timing, rather than being knackered and having to stop while everyone else carried me. My intention was good and my technique clearly needed attention, mostly due to it being rubbish. However, after a while I think I actually got it, or at least significantly improved. I was really reaching over the side of the boat and I was feeling like I might just get the hang of it. Which made the coach's decision to get everyone to swap sides slightly gutting. Never mind, I thought, my arms are tired now, so each of them can do something a bit different, it'll be a like a second wind.

Hmmm... wrong kind of wind.

Sitting on the right hand side of the boat felt like all kinds of wrong for me, like having the buttons on the wrong side, I imagine.

In dragon boating one of the things you really have to get right is your seating position. This is actually a kneeling position with your outside hip and thigh wedged up against the gunwale of the boat and your inside knee on the bottom of the boat, with your inside foot under your seat. Sat on the left of the boat I seemed to be able to lock in fairly easily, on the right though, I just didn't seem to wedge in the same. Slipping around makes the whole exercise even more exerting too, making me so tired that my brain decided it was sick and tired of me and died. When Hayden, the coach, asked me how I was finding it I said "I prefer it on the left." To which he said something like "That's good, but what about your position in the boat." Everyone tittered and I assumed I'd said something stupid, so I rambled on some more and he just said "Ah, right." At least I realised it was a willy joke before the end of the session.

All in all I ended the paddle feeling somewhat disheartened but kind of figured I'd be back on the left the next time out... which was only two days later!

But the next session came and Dave, who was now sitting next to me, seemed happier on the left and me being new I figured I could get used to the right.

Actually the thought of making a fuss about which side I was on and then being just as pap after the move was my real motivation for saying nothing.

Behind me now was Robin, who is a dragon boating terrier, if you think of the water as rats and his paddle as teeth. He is also a supremely encouraging man who doesn't say the obvious things like "I've known children who are tougher than you" or "I wish you'd fall in the sea, at least the boat would be lighter". Instead he gave me advice on pretty much everything and even complimented my timing - which was probably because there was nothing else positive to say. He pointed out my faults, for sure, but he also told me how to fix them, which was especially useful when practicing starts. The paddling for these is very fast and very short, shorter than it's possible to imagine anyone wanting a stroke to be.

However, the best bit of advice Robin gave me was while most of the crew were paddling along, "If you stop paddling get your elbow in, because I will hit it!" Every time I flaked out I forgot this advice, but he never did whack my elbow. He's a sterling guy fo shiz.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Because it Burns...

When we first arrived in Wellington there were lots of people wandering around with paddles in their hands. This was a strange and baffling sight, although we were jetlagged and most things seemed strange and baffling at the time. We soon learned from Brett, the HR guy at work and generous collector us from the airport, that there was an upcoming dragon boat festival and the oar wielders were practicing participants.

Rach commented at the time that she’d like to have a go, I said nothing and thought that all I knew about dragon boating was some footage of a festival in Hong Kong I once saw, featuring men paddling with a fury and pace that was a little (ahem) out of my league.

The festival came and went.

The 2009 festival came and went, and I completely managed to dodge it.

Then, late last year, while I was away, Rach met Hannah, who asked if we wanted to be in a dragon boat team. Obviously, Rach said yes. I surprised myself and also said yes, mostly because I reasoned that anyone who asks folk they’ve only just met to take part in a competitive team sport was clearly desperate, and desperate people tend to judge kindly.

Well, on Wednesday last week the training for this exploit began. A warm overcast, and thankfully, not very windy evening was the setting. Hanging around with the rest of the team, most of whom I had never met, I knew I was nervous because I was especially silent – a fine time to learn to be non-committal.

All kind of fears fluttered around my belly and my head: Am I too weak? I certainly have some of the puniest arms around. What if I have no rhythm? I am an awesome dancer but my experience of synchronised paddling is not good, by which I mean all fail.

The one thing I wasn’t totally petrified about was running out of breath, thanks to my ugly shoes.

Finally we stopped milling around and started shuffling about, having our positions in the boat assigned. Once organised it was time to hop aboard, or teeter precariously in, depending on how truthful you want me to be.

Seated in rows of two we splashed about for ages, getting the neophytes amongst us up to speed with the art of paddling. And it is an art, get the action wrong and you tire easily. I know because I got the action wrong and tired easily. By the end of the session my left arm was so enfeebled that I couldn’t lift the oar out of the water, which causes a lot of trouble, especially for the guy behind.

Docked once more in Wellington’s lagoon my head was light and my whole body wrecked as I teetered once more along the length of the boat to alight. Nearly slipping on the slimy causeway I was highly pleased to discover that you then get to walk past all the members of the team who’ve already left the boat and high five each of them in turn. I liked that so much I said I’d try to get people at work to do it whenever I leave. Luckily for me the high fiving was done with the right, not the left hand.