Ken Wong was in Hong Kong with his father in 1996. "It was one of those going-back-to-the-Motherland kind of trips," said the Philadelphia native, who noticed signs all over town for the local dragon boat races.
"I figured I would take it in - a tourist thing," Wong recalls. "But, wow, when I got there, I was overwhelmed. It was NASCAR on the water - speed, excitement, and color."
Wong returned home energized and found that Philadelphia was more or less ground zero for dragon boat racing in the United States. Since then, he has been the prime evangelist for the sport, and this weekend he is the go-to guy for the Fifth Annual Independence Dragon Boat Regatta to be held Saturday on the Schuylkill.
Wong expects 72 boats to be racing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the same flowing Schuylkill waters as the major shell rowing events, starting near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. But dragon boats are different. First, there are as many as 20, though sometimes only 18, paddlers in each dragon boat, with a helmsman to steer and either a coxswain or sometimes a drummer to keep the beat the paddlers row to. That the participants are paddlers means they push their oars straight down in the water, like canoeists, rather than pulling them along the side, like the rowers in racing shells who normally compete in regattas along the Schuylkill.
Capt. Heather McGrath, commander of the Philadelphia Metropolitan U.S. Army Recruiting Company, said she had never been in a dragon boat before this year's race, but is all set to be the Army team's coxswain.
"I am good at yelling out commands and can't wait to do the drumming," said McGrath, who added that the Army enjoys doing community events like this.
There are categories for women and men, youths (ages 12 to 18), masters (age 40-plus), grand masters (age 50-plus), and even mixed boats (usually 12 men and eight women).
Wong, 55, is president of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, and he said its premier boat has been a national champion since 1992.
"When I came home from Hong Kong, I was only looking to see if there was some team at all in the United States," said Wong, an insurance broker. "I was pretty happily surprised to find out not only that there was racing in the States, but that the best club was right here in Philadelphia."
Wong had been a fencer at Central High School and then went to Penn State. He figured he was a good enough athlete to give dragon boat racing a try, so he joined the Philadelphia club. "Next thing you know, I'm in a boat and they show me how to paddle and I have been loving it ever since."
Most dragon boat races are 500 yards, but some are as short as 200 yards, "and you can imagine, with all that horsepower, how fast that goes." Wong said the international 200-yard record is a mere 41 seconds by a boat from the Philippines.
Wong said the purpose of the Independence regatta is to encourage local groups to sponsor and participate in dragon boat racing. The U.S. Marines and Army will have boats, as well as the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments, Temple University Hospital, and NBC10. There are also several breast-cancer-survivor boats in a special race.
Dragon boats will often be decorated, usually in bright colors with Chinese designs painted on the outside or on the upturned parts of the bow or stern.
At the Independence regatta, said Wong, there will be cultural and other athletic things to do on the Kelly Drive banks of the Schuylkill. There will be dancers from the University of Pennsylvania Chinese Dance Club, and the Army will bring a rock-climbing wall. McGrath said the Army also will have a Humvee with Xbox military games and a trailer with simulations, like a virtual helicopter flight along the Schuylkill.
"Plus we have every intention of beating the Marines in the race and having a lot of fun doing so," McGrath said.
Wong said paddlers have all levels of experience. Some are former star scullers, and others were just like him, athletes making a transition. But the collaborative spirit of nearly two dozen people working together in a boat is what is most attractive to him.
"Anybody can do it. We encourage everyone to get into a boat, which is why we are here this weekend. There is always someone to pick you up," he said. "Anyone who has a competitive spirit will love speeding along in the water on one of these beautiful boats. The scenery is wonderful and when the adrenaline starts going, you just can't beat it."