It was a cold, dark, winter's evening one January at the docks in Liverpool, England. The wind was blowing from the North West at a steady 15 mph. It started to snow.
I had expressed an interest in paddling dragon-boats to a guy I worked with at the time. He ran the Amathus dragon-boat Club in Liverpool. I had agreed that I would meet him where the dragon-boats were tied up that evening.
There were about twenty of us there, men and women between 14 and 60 years old. Everyone was dressed in multiple layers of clothing, tee shirts, jumpers, jumpers, jumpers, waterproofs, woolly hats and jogging pants. I had no hat. I have no hair either, so somebody lent me a hat and a waterproof jacket.
We ran round the building for a few minutes and did a series of stretching warm-up exercises. My hands were numb with the cold.
We marched into the storage cage and strapped on our buoyancy aids, before lining up at the two dragon-boats that had been pulled around to the floating dock at the side of the building. We divided into two group of ten and sat ourselves down in the dragon-boats with our paddles.
Two people then rearranged everyone so that the dragon-boats balanced and did not lean to one side. I was sitting near the back on the left. (Stern and Port, as I learned to call them).
We set off. 20 strokes later we paused, brought the two dragon-boats together and discussed the plan for that dark cold evening on the water.
dragon-boats fully loaded are about six inches above the water. I was in an open boat 12.4 metres long with eight other paddlers and some fool standing up behind me going along six inches above the water at what felt like 30 miles an hour, with snow blowing in my face. What kind of fool am I?
The guy standing on the back, 'the helm' got us all paddling again. After another 20 strokes I was wiped out and stopped to rest. Everybody else kept paddling. There is not a lot of room between the seats in a dragon-boat, only 67.5 cm, a bit over two feet. When I stopped paddling it messed up the whole boat. The man behind could not stretch forward as he wanted to, so I had to start paddling again, even if it was pretty ineffectual.
We paddled two kilometres to the end of the dock. The two dragon-boats pulled together and we had a rest. I was in pain. The sweat was pouring off me, even in the snow and the wind. My arms, one leg and my front were all soaked from water splashing. I went to remove a layer or two, but was advised against it. Apparently even wearing wet clothes is better than wearing fewer clothes in a boat.
I was given advice about my paddling technique, which was awful, as I now realise. I was trying to paddle using my biceps, which are very small muscles. Use your back and legs I was told, it will be easier.
It was a lot easier once I started paddling with my whole body, rather than just my arms.
Then the hail started.
Imagine it, two dragon-boats. Ten people in each of one. Pitch black. Hail blowing horizontally into our faces as we paddled the two dragon-boats back the way we had come. I have never been more uncomfortable than I was that night.
I did warm up though. I just paddled with my eyes shut for most of the time.
'Somebody is out of time', came a shout from the front pair of paddlers.
'It's you', said the guy sitting behind me. 'If I am then there is nothing I can do about it, survival is the name of the game' were my thoughts at the time.
How did the paddlers at the front know I was out of time at the back though? Experience and by the way dragon-boats move, apparently, surging forward with each stroke and settling slightly between strokes.
Somehow the two boats managed to find their way back to the clubhouse. We had been on the water, paddling, for one and a half hours, no wonder I was wiped out. As far as I was concerned, I was finished with dragon-boats, for ever.
As we climbed out of the dragon-boats I fell over, my legs were so stiff. Someone behind caught me by the elbow, obviously more alert and fitter than I was. We were not done yet. We were led upstairs to a sheltered area, where we went through a lengthy series of stretching exercises and relaxing moves to warm down. I had never even heard of warming down before, but it felt GOOD.
As I drove home, I was thinking to myself, 'dragon-boats, you can stick them.'
I had a hot shower and sat down to relax, thinking about all the crazy paddlers in dragon-boats all over the world paddling in the teeth of blizzards, cut by hail and suffering from hypothermia. Not for me, I was sane.
The next day my friend asked me how I had found it out on the water in the dragon-boats the previous evening. 'Cold', I told him, 'Exhausted… but exhilarating. When is the next session?' I could not believe that I was asking to go out in the dragon-boats again!
I went paddling in the clubs dragon-boats three times a week for the rest of the year, becoming fitter and a better paddler over time, though I suspect my timing in the stroke was always slightly out with the rest of the crew. I switched to the starboard (right) side of the boat and my technique improved further.
Paddling dragon-boats is addictive, fun, team-building and exhilarating. Other club members even talked me into going to inter-club races. I was surprised they wanted somebody who was just a beginner, but that is the spirit of anyone who paddles dragon-boats, totally inclusive.