Stream-of-Consciousness Writing Exercise: Dragon Boat Practice

I decided to participate in the Writing 101 Challenge for the month of June, run by my colleagues who are on Automattic’s Editorial team.

Day One of the challenge asks us to:

To get started, let’s loosen up. Let’s unlock the mind. Today, take twenty minutes to free write. And don’t think about what you’ll write. Just write.

Keep typing (or scribbling, if you prefer to handwrite for this exercise) until your twenty minutes are up. It doesn’t matter if what you write is incomplete, or nonsense, or not worthy of the “Publish” button.

And then the twist is to share it on our blogs. Well, I’ve taken the plunge, and this is what I wrote. Since I did this exercise after coming back from dragon boat practice, it ended up being about dragon boats. Here it is. Unedited, unorganized, just raw, rambling thoughts. Really difficult for me to do since I always self-edit, but I forced myself not to do that this time.


If it’s Monday or Wednesday, I start getting ready for practice around 4:30 pm. If it’s Saturday morning, I wake up around 7am to feed Harmony, take a shower and get dressed for practice. It’s super hard for me to leave the apartment because I feel so guilty about leaving Harmony. I spend 15 minutes just kissing her and loving her and telling her “Mama will be back, she promises.” I leave her fresh water, clean out her litter (for the millionth time that day), and put out enough kibble to survive on for a few days just in case something happens and I can’t get back right away. It’s a wonder I manage to ever leave the apartment at all.

One of my teammates, Fayliza, recently moved to just a few blocks from me and so we message each other to find out if we’re both going to practice. If so, we meet on the corner of our street and walk together. We’re decked in our full gear — paddles in their carrying cases, sunglasses, hair bandanas. Quite a few times people have asked, “what is that?” while pointing at the paddle carrying case. “Is that a musical instrument?” I always tell them it’s a dragon boat paddle, and then it turns into a quick conversation about what dragon boating is, and that they’re welcome to join us for a practice if they’re interested! Street-side recruiting. 🙂

On Mondays and Wednesdays we have to be at the boat house by 5:45pm; on Saturdays we have to be at the boat house by 10:15am. It’s about a mile from my street to the boat house and it can take up to 45 minutes to walk there. But I walk everywhere and I enjoy walking. It’s a big part of the process actually, the journey. Especially when it’s sunny out. I LOVE my walk to the lake and it’s fun when Fayliza joins me. If I’m short on time, I take a shorter route through another neighborhood across the freeway (that involves crossing a bridge over the loud freeway overpass which I do enjoy). The shorter route is a 25-30 minute walk. The longer route is about 45 minutes, sometimes 50 if I stroll. I like the long route because part of it occurs along the shores of the lake. The longer route is especially fun on Saturday mornings when the neighborhood is bustling and everyone is out. I pass the Farmers’ Market which occurs every Saturday, rain or shine. I just LOVE seeing people walking away from the market carrying baskets of organic, locally grown produce. I love the inflatable jumping thing they set up for the kids.

Anyhow, when we get to the Boat House, people trickle in, get their paddles and PFDs if they don’t have their own (I have my own light-weight carbon fiber paddle that I LOVE, and my own PFD that I also LOVE). There’s some socializing and chatter as people are happy to be out, away from their lives for a bit and ready to get active. And we’re happy to see each other.

If there are new paddlers joining us for practice, they’ll be signing waivers and receiving instructions on how to paddle.

Stacy, our team manager, calls for everyone to circle it up at 5:45 (Mon and Wed) and at 10:15 (Sat). When we’re in our circle, someone leads us in a quick warm-up. Stretches, jogging in place, anything to get the blood pumping.

Then we’re ready to load the boats. Depending on how many people show up, we take either one full-size 22-person boat, or we may take the big boat AND an additional smaller, 10-person swift boat. Loading up the boat takes time, as Stacy generally guides people to where they sit. Sometimes I’m one of the strokers (in the very front row), other times I’m in either row two or row three. It all depends on who shows up and how many boats we’re taking out.

When we get the boats loaded, our steersperson (either Brian or Mike) will say, “Left side push off!” and then … “paddles up!” followed by … “take it away!” And we’re off!!

We start off with a nice and easy paddle. Not too fast, not to slow. Just warming up. After about 50 or so strokes (not sure how many actually, I never count), Stacy will call for us to “reach it out” and then “power 30 on three! One, two, three!” And then we break into 30 fast power strokes. Stacy then calls for us to go “back to aerobic”, where we go back to the nice and easy pace. We repeat this cycle a few times without stopping. I think we must do at least 150 strokes!

Finally Stacy will call “let it ride!” and we stop paddling. There may be a “hold the boat” call, where we place our paddles perpendicular in the water to stop the boat from moving, like a brake. Water break! Then we break into our exercise for the day.  Lately we’ve been breaking the boat up into several groups (front two rows, middle rows, back rows) and each group practices our race starts and finishes, really focusing on technique. This exercise is hard work, because with only a few people paddling the boat, you work harder to move it! If you’re doing the stroke correctly, you’ll really feel it in your back, core, and front leg that’s closest to the water. Damn!

I love that exercise! Once all the groups have had their multiple turns, we’re ready to do a race piece! This can be anywhere from a 250-meter sprint to a 500-meter race. At one point last year we were doing 700-meters! These days we’ve been doing 500-meter races. I remember when I could hardly get through a 250. Once I improved my technique (using back, core, and front leg instead of arms), I find that it does get easier. Still, there are days when even using proper technique doesn’t help! 😛

If we have two boats, we’ll race each other. Otherwise we’ll just do a race with one boat. For the race pieces, focus is important. Lean forward. Pay attention. Listen for the calls! “Paddlers are you ready?!” Reach out with paddle directly over the water, rotating your body so that you’re facing your seatmate. “Attention please!” Dig your paddle all the way into the water. And… “Go!” We’re off!

We start off with six strong, fast strokes. Followed by 16 short and fast strokes. Then we break into long, strong, steady strokes. This is called a “six-sixteen start” and the count usually is like this: “One-two-three-four-five-six-UP-one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-sixteen-BOOM!” After the boom stroke, we break into the long steady strokes for the bulk of the race. Strokers usually do this counting. I love counting, and I try to count as loud as I can.

It’s important that the stroke rate not be too fast or too slow. If it’s too fast, people will get tired out and won’t be able to sustain it for the entire race. A too-fast pace can lead to inefficiency as well since there won’t be enough time to do the full stroke to move the boat. If it’s too slow, that’s no good because we could fall too far behind. I never even paid attention to things like stroke rate until I started stroking. It takes coordination with your partner. I’ve stroked with several different people on the team and have enjoyed each time. It’s hard work to stroke though, since everyone is relying on you to set the pace!

When we’re about 60 strokes from finishing the race, we listen for the “FINISH IT NOW!” call. The stroke rate increases. Stacy calls out, “POWER! PULL! POWER! PULL!” People walking along the shores of the lake look at us! This is our big finish. Our extra “Omph!” at the end. I’m tired, hurting, want to stop, but am really into it. I want to stop but I want to keep paddling. The end is so near…sometimes people yell or grunt or make loud noises. I love doing that. Usually I’m so quiet that it feels wonderful to let go and make all kinds of noises. If I’m stroking, I yell out, “DIG!” or “GO!” every other stroke while we’re on the finish.

When we’re about 30 strokes from the finish, we listen for our signature call: “FINISH THAT SHIT!!!!” The rate increases even more, as we give every last bit of what we have (and don’t have, as Stacy likes to say). Scream, grunt, yell, “DIG!” “DEEP!” whatever you have to do to get through it. “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!” Stacy yells. “MOVE THIS BOAT!”

…and then you hear it. The magical three words: “LET IT RIDE!!!!” It’s over. We stop. We’re done! Catch your breath, get some water. Not sure I could do it again! But hey…it was painful but after I can breathe again I actually feel GOOD!

Now it’s time to “brace the boat”. Place your paddles flat against the water, and we’ll switch sides. You don’t want to paddle only on one side, or you could develop uneven muscles…heheheh. For safety, everyone who is not switching sides must brace the boat. Bracing helps give the boat some more stability while the weights are shifting around while people switch. Switching must be done one row at a time. One person remains sitting and slides across to the other side, while their seat mate stands up and  shifts to the other side. Again, if you’re not switching, you’re bracing! Switching sides can be scary in the small swift boat since that boat is so reactive to everything — shifts in weight, water motion, etc. But I will say that we have not had a boat tip in the 2.5 years I’ve been on the team…yet. 😛

So we’ve all switched sides. Now what? We repeat everything I’ve just described above! Starting with a warm up, followed by power strokes, then an exercise, then another race piece.

If there’s time remaining, we may do other fun exercises, like seat pulls (where again we divide the boat up into groups and each group does 3 sets of 30 strokes, focusing on technique and muscle-building), or hit drills (I don’t like those! That involves holding the paddle out over the water and then doing one fast stroke when you hear the call “HIT!”).

When practice is over, we take it back into the dock nice and easy. Usually by this time I’m doing “lazy paddling”. I’m not reaching, not rotating, not bending, not using my core. I’m just sitting upright and paddling with my arms. I have no more to give!

Unloading the boat is a process, just like loading the boat was. It takes skill to bring it in, and Mike and Brian do a great job. We listen to them for commands. Once the boat is back to the dock, we unload from the center, one person at a time. Careful not to step on the benches. Sometimes it’s an obstacle course to get out of the boat, since we have to climb over another boat and then climb up onto the dock. I love how there are always people who stick around to make sure everyone gets off safely. Our team doesn’t leave anyone behind to fend for themselves!

After practice (it ends at 7 on M/W, and noon on Sat), we get our stuff from the locked boat house! If it’s Monday or Wednesday, we go home. I get a ride from my friend Claudia or Gerry most nights. If it’s Saturday, the tradition is to walk over to a nearby Mexican restaurant for lunch. Paddling is hard work and we’re usually hungry afterward. Sometimes I join them for lunch (and if I do, I get a mushroom quesadilla, YUMMY). If I don’t join them for lunch, I walk back home. Saturdays are so lively in the neighborhood, and the Farmer’s Market is still going on when I’m walking home. Sometimes Fayliza and I walk or ride back together.

I’m eager to get home because the the lake and the boats are FUNKY. Lots of gull and goose shit on the boats AND on the dock, and who knows what’s in the water. The city just don’t got the money to clean up all the bird shit every day (but hey I’ve been paddling for 2.5 years and have yet to get sick, so…). Plus the water is salty (OK, brackish if you want to get technical) and so I’ve got salt all over my arms, and face. Since my skin is dark you can see the salt patterns on my skin. It looks like really bad ashy skin. 😀 I get home, wash my hands with piping hot water, remove my contacts (I’ll never paddle with glasses because I’ve seen how the salt ruined the lenses of my sunglasses. Luckily the sunglasses were cheap), feed Harmony her wet food (and put the several-days’ worth of emergency kibble I left out for her back into the bag), and take a looooong hot shower. I usually sing in the shower. How good my singing voice sounds depends on how much yelling I did during practice. The more I yelled, the better my voice sounds (better is relative though, I have no idea how my voice actually sounds).

After my shower, I’m feeling good and clean, and refreshed. What I do next depends on the day and time, of course!

I really appreciate the dragon boat team. I appreciate the work Mike and Stacy do for our team on a truly volunteer basis. It’s a labor of love for them, and they care about our team. You can feel their passion. There are days when it’s hard to go to practice and I don’t feel like going for whatever reason, but I always go. And I’m always glad I went. I don’t think I’ve ever had a practice where I’ve regretted going, even if it was too cold or I was too tired (I do tend to bail out of practice if it’s too cold though, I just can’t stand the combination of being cold and wet, lol).

And that, my friends, is my rambling stream-of-consciousness account of a typical dragon boat practice. Hope you enjoyed it. I loved this exercise. It was daunting at first, but I loved being able to just let go and write. I didn’t self-edit, I didn’t go back to change stuff once I wrote it, and I didn’t go back to add or remove anything. What came out is what came out. And that’s lovely! Looking forward to more. 🙂

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