The legacy of Qu Yuan comes to Tampa starting Saturday for more than a week of dragon boat racing.
The main event, the 2011 World Dragon Boat Championships, kicks off Monday but fans can get a preview this weekend during the Pan Am Club Crew Championships.
The first ever Pan Am races feature nonprofessional club-level paddlers who didn't qualify for the world championships. They'll race in smaller, 10-paddler boats with a steerer and a drummer to keep the paddling in unison. Winners will qualify for the World Club Crew Championships next year in Hong Kong.
Club crew races will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on the world championship course along Seddon Channel between Harbour Island and Davis Islands. Popular teams from Tampa Electric and the Pink Dragon Ladies, Florida's first cancer survivor dragon boat team, are expected to participate. Onshore activities, including the medal awards, will happen at Sail Pavilion waterfront bar next to the Tampa Convention Center.
The world championship races kick off with opening ceremonies from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. In keeping with ancient tradition, officials will dot the eyes of a dragon boat head to awaken the spirit of the dragon and bless the boats and paddlers. Crew members will march in a nations' parade, followed by live music.
Racing begins Wednesday and runs daily through Aug. 7. Teams of 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steerer will compete on 41-foot-long boats, six to a heat. About 2,000 athletes from 17 countries are expected to compete. The best viewing will be from Jackson's Bistro on Harbour Island.
Festivities will center at the Tampa Convention Center and spill into downtown and Channelside Bay Plaza. To rub elbows with international athletes, head to Ybor City Wednesday night and the Rock the World free concert Thursday at Curtis Hixon. The public can also browse the Worldwide Paddle Sports Expo, which starts at 10 a.m. Aug. 4 at the convention center. Admission is free.
The races honor the 2,000-year-old legend of Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who threw himself into the Milou River to protest his exile by a corrupt government. To try to save him, fishermen beat drums and splashed water with their paddles to prevent fish and evil spirits from eating him. Dragon boat races were later held each year on the anniversary of his death.
The first International Dragon Boat Federation world championships were held in 1995 in China. Tampa was awarded the games four years ago, becoming only the second U.S. city to host the biennial event.