PORTLAND, Ore. - "Can I pull my paddle in if I can't keep up?" I asked the instructor.
"Yes, of course you can," she said.
Thank goodness, I thought to myself. I had seen dragon boaters on the Willamette River plenty of times and knew how fast they paddled. I was more than a little worried that my failings (like my lack of arm strength) would be a hindrance to the entire team.
But my morale was boosted a little. That's because there was someone else there in the same position as me - a woman about my age who had never tried dragon boating, either. Rachel Fischer told me that her employer, Kaiser Permanente, was putting together a dragon boat team and she wanted to learn how it's done.
The two of us, being newbies and all, were seated together at the back of one of the dragon boats. Neither one of us had much of a clue what we were doing (our only training was a 10-minute crash course), but we had to get with the program quickly. We were now part of a team with a common goal.
The paddling was tough and both of us struggled to get the correct form and rhythm going. Just when I thought I had it, I would lose my concentration - distracted by a bird on the water or a ski boat, for example. And it only took a split second to get off track. Fischer had the same problem.
"It takes a lot of concentration," she said. "I thought I would be out in the river and enjoying the scenery. There was no scenery. I had to focus on the person in front of me and when I stopped and looked at the other side, I was off beat again."
We stuck with, it though, and gave it our all. And when it was all said and done, we both decided that we had had a great experience. We were worn out, but exhilarated about being part of an actual dragon boat team.
"I thought it was difficult, but fun," Fischer said once we were back at the dock.
"It's tough - it's physically demanding," she added. "But this is a perfect example of getting out and doing something outside that's physical and good for you."
The Bridge City Paddling Club practices on the Willamette River in downtown Portland on July 17, 2013. Photo by one of the club's members.
Afterwards, we spent some time with Jeremy Shattuck, a long-time dragon boat coach who has taken teams to world championships. He's the president of the Bridge City Paddling Club, which was kind enough to let this reporter tag along during one of their evening training sessions.
"The number one thing I hear from brand new paddlers that come off the boat is that 'I didn't know we could go that fast.' You feel the zoom and you can't do that by yourself," he said.
Shattuck was right - we did go fast. I was surprised, however, to learn that we had paddled a total of 4.5 miles. I would have guessed we had gone only about a mile. Of course most of the time, I was looking down at my paddle and had no real sense of where I was.
Rachel Fischer gets some tips from Jeremy Shattuck, President/Coach of the Bridge City Paddling Club, on July 17, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
Shattuck holds down a full-time job and spends most of his free time on the water. For him, there's something special about dragon boating.
"It's the sharing of that tiny moment in time when you cross the finish line and you hear 'Let it run!' - that moment is addicting," he said.
And there's another aspect of dragon boating he says is addictive - the shared experience of a team.
"If you're a runner and you knock out nine miles and beat your personal best time, you have achievement," he said. "But when you look around at who to celebrate your achievement with, you don't have anybody to say 'hey, I did really good.' You might tell a spouse or a friend, but they can't relate because they weren't there in that moment."
"But finish a race in a dragon boat where you've just absolutely done your best - 19 people have experienced that exact same moment that you did," he explained. "The exaltation and joy of that moment is multiplied by 20."
The Bridge City Paddling Club practices on the Willamette River in downtown Portland on July 17, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
That's what keeps Shattuck in the dragon boat game, even while juggling his work and family life.
"Honestly, it's love," he said. "I love the people. I love the sport. I love being able to come out and see people improve. I've been a coach my whole life in something - so seeing people improve and looking at the joy and energy."
And he picked the right city to do it in - Portland is big in the dragon boat circuit. In fact, Shattuck is getting his teams ready for an upcoming competition in Oakland, Calif. The stake are high - if they win there, they will quality for next year's Club Crew World Championships in Italy.
"We have some talent here in Portland," he said. "(We are) big contenders - absolutely."
The Bridge City Paddling Club in Action
Of course, there are also teams that go dragon boating as a recreational sport and nothing more. They just want to have a good time.
"Their number one goal is to paddle long enough to get to happy hour," Shattuck said with a smile. "It's such a social sport and that is awesome. Portland has probably 10 or 15 teams that I would consider 'bar league' teams."
Want to Try It?
DragonSports USA is an informational hub for many of Portland's dragon boat teams. You can check out their website and contact them for help getting started.
The Bridge City Paddling Club's mission is not only to get folks out on the water, but to have them help out in the community as well. For example, next month they are putting on their annual Dawn to Dusk ride to benefit the Children's Cancer Association.
"It is 12 hours of pretty continuous paddling," Shattuck said. "We do switch some people out during the day, but we start at our dock and head up around Ross Island and back. It's about a six-mile lap."
They'll also be taking folks out for 'Friends and Family' laps that day.
"We take them for a tour - we show them the bridges, we go over to the submarine (at OMSI) and now that they're building the new bridge, we go up there and show them what's going on," said Shattuck. "We're setting up groups to do that all day."
Shattuck said they'll have a suggested donation of $20 or $25 for the tours and all of the money will be added to the pot for the Children's Cancer Association. This year's fundraising goal is $50,000.
More from this Series
This is the last installment in a five-part series aimed at getting you to step outside your comfort zone and try something new this summer. Other topics: