Dragon boats clash in Port Jefferson harbor

Twenty-three dragon boat racing teams set off Saturday off Port Jefferson Village in a competition that celebrates Asian American culture and sportsmanship.

With each roar, the crew members dipped their oars into the harbor and paddled forward.

A drummer perched on the bow of each boat, guiding their crew along the 250-meter course. A helmsman sailed aft and three boats competed at a time.

Antoine Chiu, 23, a freshman medical student at Stony Brook University who recently moved to Long Island from San Francisco, said he started running in high school and even made the team US National last year.

“In terms of technique, timing is always number one. No matter your strength or size, the goal here is to make sure everyone is completely in sync with every shot. It means going in at the same time, going out at the same time and recovering at the same time,” said Chiu, who was competing with the university medical team. “I was told, it’s 20 hearts, one heartbeat.”

Each team has 20 paddlers, a drummer and a coxswain.

Daryl Yang and his son Jasper, 2, attend the eighth annual Port Jefferson Dragon Boat Race Festival on Saturday.
Credit: John Roca

Attendees at the annual Race Festival hosted by the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce were of varying ages and skill levels, and hailed from local hospitals, Chinese educational institutions, banks, and more. Some teams have been training all summer while others trained yesterday for the first time.

“For a sport like this, there’s no LeBron James…everyone is on the same page and that aspect really keeps me coming back every year,” Chiu said.

This age-old sport dates back to the legend of Qu Yuan in south-central China. According to ancient history, Yuan was a politician and poet who committed suicide in the Miluo River after being exiled and slandered. The villagers rowed down the river to try to find him, and an annual celebration was born later.

The boats are adorned with dragon heads and tails which are blessed before the race.

On the grounds of the Jeanne Garant Port Park, there was a lot of fanfare to mark the local event, which is now in its eighth year. Led by soprano Lingyan Zhou, members of the Sound of Long Island Chorus sang various numbers, including “From Afar”, “Empty World”, and “God Bless America”.

Among the festivities, members of the Long Island Chinese Dance Group performed a traditional fan dance. The Authentic Shaolin Kung-Fu school in Holtsville presented a lion dance, rooted in martial arts. Spectators also took turns tackling calligraphy and watercolour.

“At the end of the day, it’s for fun. You can enjoy so many people and enjoy the beauty of water. Winning is awesome,” said Qingyan Ma, 42, of South Setauket. Ma was competing with Hidden Dragon, sponsored by Stony Brook’s Center for Chinese Learning.

“It’s the best part of American culture, you get the best of sports, food and culture from around the world,” Ma added.

Earnest A. Martinez