Hope on the water: Despite barriers, festival frolic helps forge bonds

In British author Kenneth Grahame’s literary classic, The Wind in the Willows, Water Rat says to an astonished Mole who is experiencing the river for the first time: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

“In absolutely no way is that fictional, anthropomorphic rodent wrong. Personally, I love it. Growing up in a Welsh seaside town, I’m always drawn to the water.

So naturally, when it was jokingly suggested that I, a foreign-born copy editor with a habit of avoiding too much social interaction, should join the dragon boat racing team of this venerable organ, I immediately made my mumbled excuses. “I’d love to,” I said with mock disappointment, “but the boat is probably already full.”

“Oh, no,” piped up my always smiling and helpful colleague.

“But it’s probably not open to the foreign staff,” I countered.

“I’m sure it is,” she retorted with a knowing smile. “I’ll find out.”

And thus, I was press-ganged; bound by a sense of duty to my colleague. I was officially a Dragon Boatist.

While I have had my fair share of boat-based physical exertion on oceans, lakes and rivers (even coming unstuck on some rather tricky weirs), I was not prepared for the entirely different techniques required for propelling a dragon boat across the inky brine. Needless to say, 6 am starts were an equally alien concept.

With 10 of us sitting two abreast to paddle the boat, I was required to lean forward and twist my body sideways to the right, with my left arm high in the air, arced over my head holding the T-shaped handle of the paddle. My other hand, meanwhile, was thrust out in front of me, practically in the water, ready to dredge the blade of the paddle backward to the beat of a singular drum.

By the end of that first session, my entire flank was aflame. Muscles I have not felt since youth were screaming an angry song to every other part of my body.

Our second outing wasn’t much easier, but we were, as a team, finding our cohesiveness. Even if I still felt very much like an interloper, needing to have my aforementioned colleague sit behind me-like the parrot on a pirate’s shoulder-interpreting everything for me. Her boundless enthusiasm and promises that the coach was praising my efforts convinced me, however, that my spot in the boat was warranted.

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