Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Madison County Chamber’s Dragon Boat Regatta Inspires Teamwork, Community Involvement

Mississippi Magazine
May / June 2013Imagine yourself standing on the banks of the Ross Barnett Reservoir.  In the distance, flashes of red, yellow, and green appear.  You watch as the colors get closer and suddenly take on shape – a leering grin, gnashing white teeth, a long scaly body.  It’s not a dream and it’s not the Loch Ness monster.  It’s the Madison County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Dragon Boat Regatta.Dragon Boat racing is rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing water sports in the world.  However, the tradition dates back centuries.  In China, dragons are believed to be the rulers of water.  During ancient times, Chinese farmers would hold festivals that coincided with the summer solstice as a way to honor the dragon and the sun in an effort to ensure a healthy growing season.  Dragon boat racing began making its way across the globe in 1976, when The Hong Kong Tourism Board organized international races in London and Germany.  The sport was first introduced to North American in 1986 during the world exposition held in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Since then, the tradition has spread across both Canada and the United States.  Worldwide, over 60 countries participate in some sort of organized dragon boat competition.

In 2008, the Madison County Chamber of Commerce decided to launch the Dragon Boat Regatta as a fun and unique way to promote camaraderie and team-building within the community.  While the economy prevented the chamber from hosting the race again in 2009, they brought it back in 2010 with great enthusiasm.  Five years later, it continues to grow.  In 2012, 47 teams participated, up from just a little over a dozen teams when the event first began.

“The Madison County Chamber likes to do things differently from other chambers of commerce.  We wanted to bring in something unique and we did a lot of research on other activities before deciding to do dragon boat racing,” said Jodi Maughon, Director of Projects and Special Events for the Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

For the last five years, The Chamber has worked with Great White North Dragon Boat out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to bring the impressive 40-foot long vessels to Mississippi.  Area police and fire departments, as well as medical personnel, are also on hand to ensure the safety of each participant.

“The event is very professionally done,” added Maughon.  “The regatta is the only event like it in the state and it’s something you don’t see every day, so it opens people up to a culturally diverse experience.”

Each boat manned by a crew of 20 – 25 people.  Every team member has an important role – drummer, paddler, or the sweep.  The drummer sits at the bow of the boat and controls the frequency and synchronization of the paddlers by keeping rhythm on a drum or through calls or hand signals.  The sweep sits at the stern, controls the udder, and determines the direction of the ship.  The rest of the crew serves as paddlers.  Every member of the team must work together in order to propel the ship forward.

“It is incredibly challenging physically,” said James M. Jeter, chief development officer and foundation executive director for St. Dominic Health Services.  “I have played sports on a collegiate level, run marathons, and played recreational sports for years, but the last 50 yards of the race were the biggest gut check I have ever endured. However, it doesn’t matter how strong you are.  If you are not in sync as a team you are not going to win.  It’s all about timing.”

While it might sound like a lot of work, the friendly rivalry between competing teams and the fun, family atmosphere ensures that past participants of the race are always anxious to sign up for the next year.  The weekend kicks off on Thursday with the Paddler’s Party at the Jackson Yacht Club.  Each team is given a paddle beforehand to decorate according to their theme or business.  A panel of judges award first, second, and third place prizes during the kick-off festivities.  On the day of the race, some participants even dress up in costumes to show their support.

“To say that our team had fun would be a massive understatement,” said Derek Bell, who was captain of the Mint Julep team last year.  “Every person on my team was ready to sign up for this year at the end of last year. I have been counting down the days for 12 months.”

Shaun Moody, Sergeant/Paramedic with the City of Ridgeland Fire Department wholeheartedly agreed.  “This is an awesome team building event and as well as networking event,” he said.  “There is a fun and competitive edge to it and it provides for a very entertaining Saturday.”

If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Maughon still encourages spectators to come and watch the race and enjoy the festival, which features life music, food, and a kids zone.  Says Maughon, “On shore, there is definitely a tailgating atmosphere.  It’s very family friendly.”