JANESVILLE—The way the folks at KANDU Industries see it, you can only play so many rounds of golf.
That was part of the thought process heading into planning for this year’s summer fundraiser. Having hosted their own golf event for several years, organizers at the local nonprofit recognized a growing number of similar functions and decided it was time to branch out.
“My predecessor and Jim McMullen (development director at KANDU) were at a conference in Louisiana, and while they were walking through some of the booths, they saw a dragon’s head sticking out,” said Liz Rondon, KANDU’s development coordinator. “They went in, talked to Matt Robert at 22Dragons and got information about dragon boat racing. Then they came back and talked to the board about it.”
Apparently the board liked what it heard. On Saturday, Sept. 14, KANDU will host its first-ever Dragons on the Rock—an afternoon of dragon boat racing, live music, food and other activities at Janesville’s Traxler Park.
“We just needed something new,” Rondon said. “A fresh idea.”
While next month’s event will be new to Janesville, the premise of dragon boat racing has been around for centuries.
The sport’s origins trace back some 2,000 years to ancient China, where villagers raced boats to worship dragons. The superstitious villagers believed honoring the dragons—symbols for water—might help them avoid misfortune and encourage the rains needed for prosperity.
Since then, dragon boating has evolved from the ceremonial to the competitive to become one of the world’s fastest-growing water sports. Races are held worldwide.
“Dragon boating is a big deal in China. It’s their national sport,” said Robert, who owns Montreal-based 22Dragons. “I’ve been over there about a dozen times, and when they have a race, there will be more people watching it on TV than watch the Super Bowl. It’s that big.”
More recently, dragon boating has gained momentum in Europe and North America, and Robert said his company annually hosts about 50 events in locations ranging from southern Louisiana to northern Quebec. Rondon noted similar events already take place in several Wisconsin cities.
“The one in La Crosse has a huge following, and the one in Minocqua was very well attended,” she said. “It’s definitely a growing event around the U.S.”
Robert said the sport has gained popularity because anyone can take part.
“Dragon boat races are held in sprints. They’re not two-hour-long canoe races, so everyone can participate,” he said. “I can sit next to my overweight father and my grandmother in the same boat and make it to the end of the race.
“What makes a team successful is teamwork and timing,” Robert added. “If you can do all of the same things together, that trumps fitness and strength.”
Constructed of wood and fiberglass, the boats measure 46 feet long and often weigh around 600 pounds, Robert said. Each costs in the neighborhood of $20,000.
Each boat holds 22 people. Along with the provided navigator, that includes 20 paddlers and a drummer—the latter of which provides a consistent beat by which all paddlers stroke. Organizers suggest teams include up to four extra members as alternates in case other members tire out.
According to KANDU’s website, all team members must be at least 12 years old, and all teams must complete at least one hour of practice time before Sept. 14. Practice will be offered Sept. 9-13, and equipment and training are provided.