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Published: Sunday, 7/31/2005

38 dragon boats take to the river for annual festival

BY JEREMY LEMER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The 'Pillsbury Rowboys,' the J.M. Smucker Co. entry in the Great Maumee River Dragon Boat Festival, joked they were on a special training regimen for the competition - avoiding Smucker's cakes. The festival, in its fourth year, is organized by Partners in Education and drew 38 teams that paid $2,000 each to participate. The 'Pillsbury Rowboys,' the J.M. Smucker Co. entry in the Great Maumee River Dragon Boat Festival, joked they were on a special training regimen for the competition - avoiding Smucker's cakes. The festival, in its fourth year, is organized by Partners in Education and drew 38 teams that paid $2,000 each to participate.
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge

The stirring beat of the tom-tom and the musical splash of paddles cutting through water echoed across a sparkling Maumee River yesterday as thousands of area residents gathered at International Park to watch and participate in the Great Maumee River Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival organized by Partners In Education, a nonprofit group that connects area schools with local business and civic groups, is in its fourth year and has gone from strength to strength, director Julia Faulkner said.

In 2001, 18 crews paddled decorative canoes along a 500-meter stretch of the Maumee river. This year, 38 teams took up the challenge, paying $2,000 each for the pleasure.

With feet planted firmly on the shore, the 2,400-year-old Chinese sport of dragon boat racing seems simple. Each boat consists of 20 paddlers seated in pairs, a steerer, and a drummer to keep time. Teams race three abreast and, hopefully, progress heat by heat to the final.

On the water, however, things become more tricky with bad timing, wind, and waves causing some boats to capsize and many more to zig zag across the river, paddles waggling like the feet of a drunken centipede.

In recent years the races have become more competitive, Sheila Odesky, director of grants for Partners In Education, said.

Some crews took to the gym before the start of the event, and teams in matching uniforms, life vests, and gloves could be seen in colorful clusters all over the park.

Dressed in a particularly eye-catching blue-and-yellow ensemble were the two teams from McElheney Locksmiths Inc., and their paddler-manager, Joanne McElheney.

Jenny Bruns, left, and Joe Meyers, members of the Brooks Insurance Agency Coverage Crew team, watch one of the races during the Great Maumee River Dragon Boat Festival. Jenny Bruns, left, and Joe Meyers, members of the Brooks Insurance Agency Coverage Crew team, watch one of the races during the Great Maumee River Dragon Boat Festival.
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge

"It's better to look good than be good" the veteran racer said, "but we do both." One of Team McElheney's boats won the all-women's division - in which it was the sole entry.

Toledo Police "Row Patrol" finished first in the final race of the top division, and BP's "Ricochet Rowdies" posted the fastest time overall.

To sharpen the competitive edge, organizers tinkered with the traditional formula. Crews compete against teams that work in the same area as themselves and prizes are awarded to victors in each category as well as to the overall winners.

Still dripping from her losing race against National City Bank, 22-year-old Rachel Dunlap with team FedEx/Kinkos took solace in a moral victory over arch rival UPS, which dropped out of the contest yesterday.

"They can't deliver packages like us," she said cheerfully. "And they couldn't deliver the race either."

Still, there were plenty of other reasons to be at the event.

J. M. Smucker Co., the food company, saw the festival as a perfect place to host its annual family day picnic.

"We have only been in Toledo a year," said Keith Toomey, an operations manager with Smucker and a member of the "Pillsbury Rowboys." "This is a great way to get involved in the community," he said.

Beneath a large white tent, 400 or so workers and their families ate sandwiches and hotdogs, enjoying the breezy summer's afternoon.

For the Smucker crew, though, decked out in blue company caps, shorts, and T-shirts, the event was not all about relaxation.

For the last month they have been on a special diet and training program to get in shape for the race.

"We've tried to keep away from Smucker's cakes and brownies," Mr. Toomey said. "But it's been hard, as the products are just so good."

Contact Jeremy Lemer at: jlemer@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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