The air horn blows, drums begin a beat, oars cut the rippling surface of the Thea Foss Waterway, and the race is on.
The dragon boat race.
Twenty-four teams of dragon boat paddlers met Saturday morning at the annual Rainier Dragon Boat Festival regatta.
Competitors came from Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Kent and elsewhere, from as far flung as Portland.
“It’s a canoe that looks like it’s on steroids,” said official race starter Mike Gehrke, he of the air horn.
The paddlers sit two abreast in these narrow canoes, 10 to the port side and 10 again to starboard. At the bow sits a drummer, the “caller” who determines the beat, while another team member, the tiller, steers at the stern.
Early heats had the racers traveling either 250 yards or 500 yards on a course placed roughly from the Foss Waterway Seaport dock to the head of the Thea Foss.
The event sponsor, the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association, was formed, Gehrke said, after a 1999 conversation aimed at bringing some non-motorized pizzazz to Maritime Fest.
As the heats were complete Saturday, teams ascended a gangplank from the waterside pier while other teams descended, paddles in hand, ready to race.
At a staging area within Thea’s Park, coaches gathered with their teams.
“It is the ultimate team sport,” said Jeremy Shattuck, coach of the Bridge City Paddling Club of Portland.
Bridge City fielded five teams for the weekend event.
“When you work together, you go really fast,” Shattuck said.
He said the experience resembles something akin to a state of zen.
“It becomes almost effortless,” he said.
These dragon-boaters seek the all-for-one zen of synchronicity, of simultaneous effort.
“The sport lends itself to community,” Shattuck said.
And where his team practices six times weekly and has done so for years, other teams are only now being formed.
“We’re just starting,” said Jill Guernsey, who otherwise seeks the zen of public service as mayor of Gig Harbor.
“We don’t even really have a team yet,” she said. “We’ve practiced, then we had so much fun we decided to see about having a team, and here we are.”
“Gig Harbor is into water activities, especially non-motorized activities,” she said.
Think kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards.
“And now we’re bringing this to Gig Harbor as well,” Guernsey said. “It was tough gathering 20 people together, but we did.”
And if the dragon boat team does as well as the Gig Harbor Canoe & Kayak team, then it can look forward to a run of national championships.
“We don‘t have a club, but we have a lot of spirit,” Guernsey said. “This can bring positive, healthy things to the harbor.”
Meanwhile, the races continued.
Coaches gathered their teams. Winners smiled, losers not.
“I see disappointed faces,” said Shattuck, the Portland coach, addressing his paddlers.
“Good,” he said.
If they know what it is to lose, victory will likely be all the more sweet.