TAMPA — When it comes to sports, Mark Kane has done it all. The 61-year-old executive has competed in everything from ice hockey to triathlons. But nothing has compared to the exhilaration he feels when paddling a dragon boat. "I am a Type-A, intensely competitive type of guy," said Kane, who lives and works in Tampa. "And that is what dragon boat racing is all about: competition."
Today, Kane and more than 20 other athletes from the greater Tampa Bay area will join others making up Team USA and head to the Dragon Boat World Championships in Szeged, Hungary. The Tampa contingent will be among the more than 4,000 athletes from 33 countries in what is tantamount to the Olympics of dragon boat racing.
"Team USA has pulled a lot of paddlers from Florida," said Kane, who works for Tampa Electric Company. "They are all folks who have regular jobs but paddle because it is their passion."
Dragon boat racing traces its roots back several thousand years to ancient China. Legend has it that the patriot Qu Yuan threw himself into a river after hearing that he had been exiled from his homeland. Fishermen, who worked the waterway in long, sleek, canoe-type craft, paddled out and banged on drums in order to scare off the dragons before they could devour Qu Yuan's body.The tradition of drumming and paddling continues, but the only dragons to be found in the modern sport are on the bows of the 40-foot boats.
"Dragon boats are paddled by 20 paddlers, who unlike rowers, face forward," Kane explained. "In addition, there is a steersperson and a drummer on the front of the boat to call the stroke rate."
Paddling a dragon boat is not a leisurely sport. The average stroke rate varies from 65 to 75 stokes per minute. But the top sprinters, such as those from China or the Philippines, can have stroke rates of more than 100 per minute.
"The average, fully loaded dragon boat weighs more than two tons coming down the race course," Kane said. "A world-class time for 500 meters is under 2 minutes."
Dragon boat races are usually held close to land, which makes it an ideal sport for spectators. Most venues, including the one in downtown Tampa, typically attract thousands.
Unlike competitive outrigger canoes, which are powered by six paddlers who switch sides every 8-10 strokes, dragon boat paddlers stroke on one side the entire race.
The typical dragon boat crew is divided into three sections. The first six paddlers sit closest to the drummer and should have long strokes for the rest of the crew to follow. The middle eight paddlers, or the "engine room," usually weigh the most and give the boat its power. The last six paddlers are usually the strongest and can give the boat a push near the finish line.
"The selection for the Team USA national dragon boat team was a highly competitive process drawing paddlers from all over the country," Kane said.
To qualify, paddlers participated in multiple time trials in one-person boats in Florida and then paddled again at time trials in Philadelphia. Those who made the cut have been practicing in groups four or five days a week since the selections were announced in May. The men and women will assemble as one in Hungary, and paddlers will be chosen for the various distance races.
"Now all we can do is get over there and do our best," Kane said. "For many of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I think we are all up for the challenge."