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Thursday, July 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boating

Dragons are real — they train on Lake Union

Special to The Seattle Times

We're cruising at seven knots or so, which is very fast for a boat powered by people. The western shore of Lake Union is flying by. Water is spraying everywhere.

A thought springs to mind.

"I am woefully out of shape!"

It takes a lot to make a 550-pound, 43-foot boat move so quickly. I had expected a brisk but doable paddle, being fresh in from several days of canoeing in Alaska.

Then it occurred to me: Many of the paddlers sitting in twos before me are among the first in the state to go to the Dragon Boat World Championships, which take place in Toronto in August. These people actually train.

Perhaps like me you've seen them around the lake, molded golden dragon on the front of their boat, Kenmore Air windsock on the back. They look like a relaxed bunch and seem to be enjoying themselves, like summer tourists who happily chanced upon a free way to get on the water. Just this year, 128 passing walkers have jumped aboard.

"We've brought them all back," says Lee Bjorklund, coach for the Lake Union team of the Tacoma Dragon Boat Association, which also runs out of a dock in Tacoma's Foss Waterway.

A former communications and advertising executive, Bjorklund was retired and minding his own business six years ago when his daughter recruited him to join a team of Starbuck's paddlers on a trip to Fuzhou, China, a sister city of Tacoma.

"So she came home literally and said, 'Dad, we're going to China, and you're going to paddle a dragon boat."

Once back, Bjorklund commuted from his home in Green Lake to practice in Tacoma several times a week for three years, before starting the Seattle branch.

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"We have two mottoes," Bjorklund says. We've just done a 500-yard warm-up, which felt a lot like an all-out-sprint. "One is that it's a water sport. That explains the splashing. Two, which you'll understand when we get back to the dock, is Advil is your friend."

The team is pretty firmly in the Advil generation, where pain is more chronic than fleeting. Members are careful to stretch before each practice. Everyone is encouraged to stop paddling when they feel the workout is getting too difficult.

I try this for part of the next sprint. Without my stroke bracing against the boat's movement, I can feel it surge and relent with each effort of the other paddlers. I'm on a coin-operated kiddie horse bucking at 60 kicks per minute.

I fall back in to stroking with the other dozen or so paddlers. A sharp, leaden fatigue returns. My mind drifts back to my first high school swim practice.

At last we hear Bjorklund shout "Pau!" the command to stop.

The following conversation ensues:

Boating columnist: "You are a mean man!"

Bjorklund: "All you lost is two minutes, 15 seconds of your life. Those who paddled four races on Saturday just had to paddle eight minutes, that's all."

Oddly, a Dragon-class sailboat, no relation, appears off our starboard quarter.

This inspires Bjorklund.

"Another Dragon," he says. "That feels good. Let's race a sailboat. That will be fun. OK. We've got a dragon boat! Sail type!"

More pain. A motorboat wake helps the boat surf nicely. We are a giant, people-powered piston. Gas Works Park passes to port. The sailboat taunts us off the bow.

"Reach it out!" Bjorklund shouts, encouraging us to make strokes as long as possible.

How do you spell relief? P-A-U.

"Well, we made up some ground but didn't catch them," Bjorklund says.

This is pretty much routine for the club, which practices on Lake Union every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening starting at 6, then on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. In winter they drop Friday and use running lights for evening paddles.

They are part of a small but growing North American contingent, which the International Dragon Boat Federation puts at 70,000 paddlers, and an enormous global following.

"These numbers will blow your mind," says Bjorklund. "Worldwide there are 50 million dragon boat paddlers."

Thirty million are in China, where the sport originated some 2,500 years ago.

Corinne Lee, a 46-year-old charter bus driver from Bothell, first signed up while passing by on a walk with her husband.

"I love the water," she said. "I like being competitive, and it's people my age and you're exercising. And that's the ultimate goal."

Walk-ons like Lee can paddle three times for free. They then pay an annual fee of $100 to paddle as often as they want.

The fatigue reportedly lets up over time, too.

"Anyone can be a paddler," says Bjorklund, repeating another team maxim. "It's all time on the water."

The Boating column appears twice monthly in Northwest Weekend. Freelance writer Eric Sorensen, a former Seattle Times staff reporter, keeps two boats in his Kenmore garage, and helps sail and maintain Mistral, a 31-foot Seaborn-Blanchard sloop, at Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats. Contact him at svwhim@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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