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?
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.