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Bigger-than-ever Dragon Boat Festival becoming one of best in state

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

HIGH ROCK LAKE — Gary Blabon, interim president at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, blamed it on the Loch Ness Monster or a UFO at first.

Then he fessed up. The Novant Health Rowan Paddlers’ dragon boat capsized and threw the 21 team members into High Rock Lake Saturday because they were celebrating their just-completed race a little bit too much.

Jubilant in how well they had synched together, the Paddlers raised their paddles in the air just as a wake started pushing them side to side.

“The next thing I know, I was swimming over the top of my fellow Paddlers,” Blabon said. The boat turned over about 100 to 150 yards from shore.

The bottom line: All were safe and no one was hurt. Rescue personnel got to the overturned boat quickly and everyone was accounted for. The downside: Team members were still pretty wet when their next race came around.

Otherwise, hardly anything dampened the competition, camaraderie and teamwork characterizing the sixth annual Rowan County Chamber of Commerce Dragon Boat Festival.

Click here to view more photos from the Dragon Boat Festival.

Teresa Dakins of Trinity at Home served as chairwoman for the third straight year. She and Chamber President Elaine Spalding confirmed it was the biggest festival yet with 28 teams, close to 20 vendors and an estimated crowd in the thousands.

“I would estimate we’re close to 5,000,” Spalding said during a day perfect for dragon boat racing.

The festival has come to mean a lot to the Chamber and the local economy, especially when out-of-town teams stay overnight and go to stores and restaurants before heading back home.

‘This is a great event,” Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said during the lunch break between racing. “It means a lot to us, and it keeps getting bigger each year.”

Edds and Dari Caldwell served as judges for the Drummer Parade at lunch. The winners were Justan Mounts, dressed as a unicorn, and Caleb Sinclair and Randy Cress, the back and front, respectively, of a stallion-like mascot.

Diane Geddes won $172 in the Heads and Tails Game.

This year, the festival attracted nine club teams from North and South Carolina.

“That says our festival has arrived,” Dakins said.

It means, she added, that teams which practice and compete elsewhere regularly see the Chamber’s festival and location as a place they want to visit and spend a day.

The Raleigh Dragon Boat Club brought two teams, for example, including the Chemo-Kaze, a team made up of cancer survivors. The team motto is “May Your Faith Always Exceed Your Fears.”

Carol Kurtz, team captain for the Chemo-Kaze, said the festival included lots of activities and strong competition.

“This is a great event for us,” she said. “It’s been well-organized.”

Alicia Koblansky, president of the Raleigh Dragon Boat Club, said the High Rock Lake venue — the festival takes place in the waters at the end of Long Ferry Road —  is a beautiful setting.

“We’ve been to venues across the state,” she said, “and this is one of the best ones. Everyone should really be proud of what they have going on here.”

Spalding said the Chamber can’t put on this event without its sponsors and many volunteers.

“It’s really just designed as a fun day on the lake,” Dakins added.

Hannah Cole, a member of the team sponsored by Salisbury Salt Spa, Main Realty and Southern Power-Rowan, said, “It takes hard work and dedication, but I do recommend a ski boat.”

The paddling can be a tough workout, though races generally last less than a minute-and-a-half. Each team races three times, and there were 29 total races Saturday. Two heats in the morning provide the times to determine the third and final races for the teams in the afternoon.

There are 20 paddlers to each team and a drummer in front who keeps them in rhythm. The dragon boat company provides boats and a steersman in back.

Teams must have at least eight women.

Some paddlers and teams have been competing for all six years. For others, Saturday’s races were their first.

“It was invigorating,” said Dea Campola, as member of the Salisbury Pride team. “For someone who’s never done it before, it was amazing.”

She compared the paddling to synchronized swimming. You have to be paddling in tune with whatever the person in front of you is doing. Joseph Campola described it as a team-building exercise.

“I loved it,”  Dea Campola said. “I think I got my groove the last time.”

A team of Rowan County government employees — the Rowan Oar-iginals — has competed the past five years, but it never had won a race. Until Saturday.

The Rowan team won its first two races, then missed out on a third win by just .18 seconds in its last race. “I could have sworn we got it,” Ashley Duncan said.

Was team captain Janet Ruffin impressed with the Oar-iginals’ effort this year? “I’m always impressed with them,” she said. “… They’re the ingredients, and I’m the cook.”

At times, teams like to trade some good-natured trash talk. While dragon boats from Food Lion and Novant Health Rowan were still on shore loading up, the talk was that Food Lion would have to pay in free groceries if its boat lost, while Novant Health would cough up free lobotomies.

Shane Valley captained the Food lion group, and it bested the Novant Health Paddlers.

“I think we’re just real competitive, and we wanted to finish strong,” Valley said.

Spalding could not help to kid Blabon a little bit about the overturning of Novant Health Rowan’s dragon boat. In six years, only three boats have ever done that, she told him.

‘The goal for the last race was stay in the boat — and we did,” Blabon said.

Gator Bites — a local team sponsored by two small business Chamber members, Cardinal Tire and Matangira Recycling — captured first place overall by winning the Golden Dragon Division Major Final with a time of 1:19.63, just .30 seconds better that Charlotte Fury.

Here were the eight other division winners:

• Raleigh Dragon Boat Club Relentless, 1:23.73.

• Organized Chaos, 1:22.85.

• Anchors Up, 1:27.67.

• Healing Waters, 1:28.07

• Row’d Hard & Put Away Wet, 1;29.61.

• Food Lion, 1:28.00.

• The Navigators, 1:31.06.

• Dragon Slayers, 1:39.63.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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