James Dunbar wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into.

Encouraged by some friends, Dunbar turned out for a boat paddling team his junior year at Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore. It was a decision he’s never regretted.

dragon boat festival
The Dragon Boat Festival returns to Budd Inlet on Saturday, April 30.

“I was hooked that first day,” Dunbar said. “It’s really interesting and there’s no other sport like it.”

Dunbar had tried swimming and basketball. “But it was nothing like paddling,” Dunbar said.

Now, eight years later, Dunbar, a senior at the University of Portland, is involved in the sport as a coach and as a paddler. Paddling is what will bring him to Olympia on April 30.

If you’re like Dunbar and you’re looking for fun and entertainment, look no further. Check out Saint Martin’s University’s 11th annual Dragon Boat Festival this Saturday at the Port of Olympia.

Dunbar will be coaching a high school team from his alma mater that will compete in the new junior division for competitors aged 12 to 19 at the popular Dragon Boat races, which begin at 9:30 a.m. and end with final heats at 4:00 p.m.

dragon boat festival
After the festival, each dragon’s pupils will be painted over with white. The dragons will be awakened again with another eye dotting ceremony next April.

Emmett Allen will be paddling on another junior division boat from Portland. Following his older sister’s advice, Allen first started paddling on Zamboanga Aquarockets team during his freshman year.

“I went to a few practices and I had fun,” Allen said. “I stuck with it.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Allen, who snowboards but had never turned out for a team sport before, practices paddling three times a week, working out on the Willamette River one hour in the evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays, and one hour on Saturday mornings. Practices begin in January and last through September. For Allen, the attraction is simple.

“I like the whole team aspect,” Allen said. “The one boat, one sound, one motion as we’re all paddling together. It’s as much about strength as it is about technique and synchronizing with your teammates.”

dragon boat festival
This year, the Dragon Boat Festival will include a new junior division for competitors age 12 to 19.

Typically, races are 500 meters and last about 2 minutes and 15 seconds. It’s intense. Allen is tired at the finish.

“We try to give it our all,” Allen said.

Dunbar takes the same approach. He’s all in with paddling. Not only does he coach a team three practices per week and then attends five races per year, he also paddles on an adult team. As a paddler, he finds the sport “exhilarating.” As a coach, he finds it “transforming.”

“It’s an absolute joy,” Dunbar said.

Typically, students usually join during their freshman or sophomore year.

“Students have this huge transformation over the years,” Dunbar said. “They open up as a person. They get involved in more things over the years. It’s really great to see them step up.”

dragon boat festival
The Port Plaza is a great place to watch the Dragon Boat races.

Each year, the Saint Martin’s Dragon Boat Festival offers a day filled with paddling boat races on the Puget Sound, live music, traditional lion dances, and martial arts demonstrations. The fun kicks off at 9:00 a.m. with welcoming comments at the Olympia Port Plaza from Saint Martin’s President Roy Heynderickx, Ph.D., and Washington State Senator Karen Fraser.

Kathleen Thomas, Saint Martin’s director of event services and Dragon Boat Festival planning committee chair, is enthusiastic about the free, day-long event.

“We are excited to continue with the tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival that Josephine Yung, vice president of International Programs and Development, started back in 2006,” Thomas said. “In the ensuing years, it has grown leaps and bounds with increased teams, vendors and festival attendees.”

dragon boat festival
A variety of activities take place during the Dragon Boat Festival.

This year, 52 boats will compete in the races on Budd Inlet and there will more than 1,200 participants. There will be about 4,000 interested viewers coming into town for the festival. It’s a fun day for competitors and viewers alike.

“Even if you prefer not to paddle, come out and experience the convivial atmosphere,” Thomas said. “Enjoy the cultural performances, and cheer on your favorite team.”

Since 1995, Saint Martin’s University has been involved in educational and cultural exchanges with China. Each year, members of Saint Martin’s faculty travel to China to teach international business, accounting and general education courses. Saint Martin’s students regularly participate in China study tours and internship opportunities in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Also, 40 students from China are currently studying at Saint Martin’s University. In keeping with the spirit of that exchange, Saint Martin’s started the Dragon Boat Festival.

dragon boat festival
About 1,200 paddlers participate in Saint Martin’s University’s Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival has grown significantly. Originally held on Capitol Lake, the races were moved to Budd Inlet in 2010 to accommodate the increased attendance.

The dragon boat races attract teams from across the Pacific Northwest, often drawing in boats from Seattle to Portland. Last year, a team from the Olympia Fire Department won a race.

Each boat is about 42 feet long and has about 20 paddlers, a tiller at the stern and a coxswain in the bow, sometimes playing a drum to keep paddlers in sync.

In addition to the racing, viewers can enjoy traditional Chinese art demonstrations, martial arts competitions and live music. The awards ceremony and closing remarks will take place at 4:30 p.m.

dragon boat festival
Saint Martin’s University will host the 11th annual Dragon Boat Festival at the Port Plaza on April 30.

Excitement for the event has been strong at Saint Martin’s, from the students to the staff. Brother Ramon Newell, a monk at Saint Martin’s Abbey, paddled on a boat in the first dragon boat festival that Saint Martin’s sponsored. He’s been hooked ever since.

“Dragon boating is a lot different than other sports,” Newell said in an article published in the school’s alumni magazine. “It’s a team sport, and you have to work together as a group.”

With 52 dragon boats competing, Saint Martin’s needs the community’s help. Saint Martin’s is looking for 75 volunteers to help with setup, takedown and supervision during the event. All volunteers receive a commemorative T-shirt and a free lunch. To volunteer, visit Saint Martin’s University online. Questions can be e-mailed to: dragonboat@stmartin.edu.


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