Paddling down a river on a summer afternoon might sound like a relaxing way to spend a weekend. But more than 1,000 athletes of various abilities will face a test of teamwork - and a physically grueling workout - as they take to the Schuylkill in long, canoe-shaped vessels known as dragon boats.
The Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, which has represented the United States internationally in one of the most popular participatory sports in the world, will host its second annual Independence Dragon Boat Regatta from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday on Kelly Drive near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, just upriver from Boathouse Row. The regatta will feature 20-member teams of novice and experienced paddlers battling it out in 500-meter sprints.
"Last year was our inaugural event and we had a lot of fun with it," said Ken Wong, a member of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association and cochair of the regatta. "This year, we'll have twice as many teams, including teams from Canada, the police department, fire department, local hospitals and universities and the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community."
For a $1,200 registration fee, teams are given proper equipment and three on-river paddling lessons with dragon boat association members.
"We want the event to be as inclusive as possible and to give everyone in Philadelphia a chance to participate and have fun," Wong said. "It's not just the competition, it's the camaraderie."
Time trials will be held in the morning to match teams based on ability levels, ensuring races will stay competitive throughout the day.
Highlight races include a championship between all of the hospitals that are fielding teams and the competition between police and fire department teams for a traveling trophy and bragging rights.
Tim McShea, a Philadelphia firefighter with Ladder 22, will be one of the paddlers vying against the Philadelphia Police Department. His team will be competing together for the first time.
"So far, we've taken to the water pretty good," McShea said. "But the cops have been doing this for a few years now, so they'll give us a good look at what it will take to be successful. Maybe next year we'll be doing some trash-talking, but this year, we just want to see where we are as a first-year team."
Team Philadelphia, an organization that supports gay athletic events in the area, will field a team for the regatta as part of the annual SportsWeek.
"Everybody is so excited about this event," said Soheila Nikpour, SportsWeek cochair. "To have a community of local organizations coming together is something that we really wanted to be a part of."
Spectators can watch the races for free at the river's edge. Teams also will set up tents where fans and athletes can interact.
"Philadelphia is one of the more diverse cities, and sometimes people don't take the time to really enjoy that," Wong said. "I can't think of a better way to meet and learn about other people than to paddle in a dragon boat in a Chinese sport in the Schuylkill river."
Dragon boat competitions have been taking place ever since the sport's inception more than 2,000 years ago in China. Each boat has 20 paddlers, with 10 to a side, a steersman and a drummer who sets the pace at up to 100 strokes per minute.
The Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, formed in 1983, consists of doctors, lawyers, business people and other amateur athletes who practice and train five mornings a week from April to November. By winning national competitions, the team earned the right to represent the United States in the last six world championships. Last year in Sydney, Australia, the team won the National Cup for earning the most total points.
The Philadelphia regatta is one of the fund-raising events that the nonprofit team uses to cover the expenses of sending more than 20 athletes to competitions across the country and the world.
"It is very difficult to try to explain to someone the feeling you get when you're standing on a medal stand, hearing them play the United States' national anthem while someone hangs a medal around your neck," Wong said. "No matter what, it brings tears to your eyes."
The second annual Independence Dragon Boat Regatta will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday on Kelly Drive by the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. (Kelly Drive will be closed for the day; park on the hill and walk down to the race site.) There will be food and other vendors. There is no admission charge. Information: www.independencedragonboat.com.