On May 5, 2023, hundreds of people gathered at the beach of Big Hollow Recreation Area for a day of fun and competition.

Teams convened in groups — their matching t-shirts displaying team names like Sailor Swift, Paddling Princesses, and BOAT — and played volleyball to pass the time between races.

As their time drew nearer, teams were called to the swimming area where dragon boats manned by American Dragon Boat Association sternsmen waited in the water.

After rowers took their seats came the drummer, whose responsibility was to keep the rowers on pace. Nearest the dragon head sat the flag catcher, a role that carries both great responsibility and great discomfort.

“It’s very uncomfortable and then it’s quite boring,” BHS senior turned graduate Sam Moorehead recalled at a recent student council meeting following the annual event. “But it’s a really nice feeling when you grab the flag and win.”

It was Burlington’s 33rd documented year of hosting Dragon Boat Races.

History of dragon boat races

Burlington’s dragon boat races are rooted in a canoe club brought to Burlington from Dubuque by Susan Smith, who was looking for a committee to take it over. She found that committee in the Optimist Club.

According to Carlos Capdevilla, a former Optimist Club member, the first official dragon boat races took place in 1990 along the Mississippi River. They were moved to Lake Geode the following year. Seven Ponds also became a host site, and Lake Geode also remained as such until it was drained in 2017. Now, the dragon boat races alternate between Geode and Big Hollow.

The Burlington Optimist Dragon Boat Festival became an annual and highly anticipated event, and in 1999, Burlington became a host site for an international race in 1999, drawing visitors and rowers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and China, the sport’s country of origin.

Dragon boat racing originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago in Dongting Lake and along the banks of what now is called the Yangtze River. The races were held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar as a rite to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon, as well as to avert misfortune and encourage prosperous rains.

Now, they are held in Burlington the first Sunday of May rain or shine and are only canceled in the event of lightning.

“Last year it was freezing and it was miserable. It was so bad,” BHS senior Brenna Remele said. “This year it was a lot of fun because it was nice outside.”

Burlington dragon boat teams have gone on to race throughout the country, including in New York’s Hudson River. The last race hosted by the Optimist Club was in 2005.

“It’s like with everything, you need new blood,” Capdevilla said.

BHS has kept the tradition going, though on an admittedly smaller scale.

A fun day at the beach

Each year, BHS invites schools from the surrounding area to participate in dragon boat races.

“We invite anywhere from West Central, New London, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Notre Dame,” Parris said. “The students council representatives from those schools then send out information to those kids.”

Preparations begin months in advance as captains organize teams and seek sponsors to cover the cost of t-shirts and supplies for their camp.

“In my group, we went downtown to local businesses,” BHS junior Zyana Bradford said.

Each team can have up to 30 members, but only 20 are on a boat at a time — 18 rowers, at least eight of whom must be girls, one flag catcher and a drummer. The remaining 10 are alternates.

“It’s double elimination, so every team gets to row at least twice,” Parris said.

Teams can be of all grade levels, and school staff can also get in on the fun with building teams.

The day before the event is spent practicing. On race day, teams gather at the beach in camps and play volleyball and listen to music to pass the time between heats.

“It’s just fun to be on the beach away from school,” said BHS junior Alana Yaeger.

Parris said in the future, the races may be opened up to parents of seniors to compete.

Mask group

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