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Paddles Up St. Pete Festival is perfect time to dip into paddling

Many people move to Florida for the water. Local residents can take their pick of playgrounds: Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

And while power boating and sailing are undoubtedly widely popular, paddling has become the recreational activity of choice for many water enthusiasts.

Twenty years ago, you might have seen the odd aluminum canoe out on the bay, but if you stroll along St. Petersburg's waterfront today, you will see people paddling everything from sea kayaks to standup paddleboards.

And if you head to Bayboro Harbor on Saturday you'll see a new addition to the city's recreational fleet: the dragon boat. This type of watercraft is typically about 40 feet long and holds 20 paddlers, paired off sitting side by side.

More than a dozen teams are expected to compete in a series of dragon boat races along a 350-meter course as part of the Paddles Up St. Pete Festival. The event, which organizers hope will become an annual affair, will feature everything from paddleboards to kayaks at Poynter Park and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus.

Dragon boat racing is huge in Asia, where the sport can trace its history back several thousand years. According to an ancient Chinese legend, the patriot Qu Yuan, after hearing he had been exiled from his beloved land, threw himself into the Mi Lo River. The local fishermen, who plied the river's waters in long, sleek craft, paddled out and banged on drums to keep the dragons from eating Qu Yuan's body.

Today, dragon boat races in China and surrounding countries typically draw thousands of athletes and hundreds of boats. But this team sport also has caught on big in the United States.

Races typically are short, no more than 500 yards, and intense. The boats, which usually weigh about 800 pounds empty, hold paddlers, a drummer who sets the pace and coxswain who steers the boat with a 9-foot wooden paddle.

Unlike competitive outrigger canoes (45 feet long), which are powered by six paddlers who switch sides every eight to 10 strokes, dragon boat paddlers stroke on one side (port or starboard) for the entire race.

A top crew can cover the typical 500-meter course in about 2 minutes, 25 seconds. This may not seem that difficult to the uninitiated observer, but all you have to do is climb into the boat for a 10-minute training session to feel the burn.

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.

Between dragon boat races, festival attendees can test-paddle a variety of canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards. Paddleboards, also called SUPS, are the hottest selling watercraft today. They are light, easily transportable and user friendly. Most paddlers can stand up and get going after a 10-minute lesson. But if you plan to paddle, make sure you wear swimming attire. You never know when you might end up in the water.

While you are there, test-paddle a sea kayak. If you don't know anything about these affordable watercraft, here is a quick primer:

Kayaks come in two varieties: enclosed and sit-on-top. Enclosed boats are usually made of fiberglass and are better suited for coastal touring and open-water adventures. Sit-on-tops don't paddle as well over long distances, but they are better suited for fishing. The open-cockpit design allows an angler to get on and off, and wade the shallow areas.

The lighter the boat, the easier to paddle, but the longer the waterline (length), the faster the boat will go. A short boat (11 to 13 feet) handles better in tight spots; longer boats (13 to 17 feet) perform better over long distances and in big waves.

Sit-on-tops are the most popular watercraft on local waters, probably because they can be easily carried by one person. The boats have become popular as a form of cross training, especially with triathletes, because the rhythmic paddling offers good cardiovascular exercise and a pleasant alternative to running, cycling and swimming.

. Fast facts

Paddles Up St. Pete Festival

What: A free festival promoting all things paddling and to promote marine science, safety, preservation and education.

When/where: 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday; Poynter Park (1000 3rd St. S) and the waterfront at USF St. Petersburg on Bayboro Harbor.

Highlights: Dragon boat races; kayak races; canoe, kayak and standup paddleboard test drives; and a marine science expo.

More information: paddlesup stpete.com.

Paddles Up St. Pete Festival is perfect time to dip into paddling 10/04/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 7:29pm]
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