Berkeley Dragon Boat Racers Revive Ancient Chinese Sport

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At the Berkeley Marina you can windsurf, sail, study tide pools and fish off a pier that once extended halfway to San Francisco.

And likely coming soon is the ancient Chinese sport of dragon boat racing, one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

The Berkeley City Council is set to consider accommodating dragon boating at the Marina tomorrow, a proposal with no strong opposition.

Racers decorate the 48-foot canoe boats with fierce dragon heads, scaly sides and elaborate tails. Twenty crew members paddle while one steers and the "drummer" yells commands.

Boaters race along a straight course 250 to 1000 meters long. A top team can reach speeds of 9 mph.

The history of racing dragon boats goes back more than 2,400 years. In China, a festival celebrating the races is the second biggest holiday of the year, after Lunar New Year.

Berkeley has a team but no place to practice. The Berkeley Dragons spent last summer fighting for space in Oakland's Lake Merritt.

When the Mayoral Cup rolled around last August, the crew got "skunked," said Captain Phyllis Alvarez.

"The race has become a lot more competitive in the past few years, and we decided we needed our own facilities to be competitive," she said.

Alvarez said she decided things needed to change after the Dragons lost, so she took her effort to the top-Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean.

In a letter to Dean, Alvarez proposed that if the city provided docks she would find a boat, something else the Dragons lack.

Alvarez's effort gained steam with the help of the right city official-the head of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission, Paul Kamen. When he heard about dragon boating he became a big supporter.

In a letter to the mayor supporting Alvarez, Kamen made the case for dragon boats.

He said large numbers of people can use them at very little cost to the city. Beyond the cost of the boats and minimal docking fees, very little expense exists. Unlike playing fields and parks, water is free and never needs maintenance, he added.

The sport attracts people from all walks of life, Kamen said.

"Basic participation demands very little physical ability or specialized skill or training," he said.

Kamen said dragon boating could become a popular sport with Berkeley's youth. It "attracts a completely different type of kid" who normally does not like sports, he said.

According to Kamen, a 600-meter corridor within the marina could be used for practice. The spot is far from ideal, according to enthusiasts, because the boat traffic in the marina could restrict their training. Dragon boaters would only be able to practice weekend mornings and weekday nights.

Eventually, Kamen wants to move the dragon boats' docks and practice area to a large cove on the far side of the marina. The cove, which faces north, has potential for 800 meters of wind-sheltered practice space, and no yachts or other boats would be in the way.

But the Sierra Club and othier environmental groups oppose using the cove for all boating, even human-powered boats. Migrating birds rest in the cove as they journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The canvasback duck, whose numbers are dwindling, also makes a stop there.

Dragon boating would disturb the birds, causing them to weaken, said the Sierra Club's Norman LaForce, chair of East Bay Lands.

"It would be the same thing if you were trying to sleep in a motel and eighteen-wheel trucks kept going by the window," he said.

The Sierra Club does not oppose dragon boating inside the marina, and it looks likely that plan will win approval. But the cove will probably remain unused in the environment-friendly East Bay.


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