Festival lit up the Shoals at McFarland Park. From 9 a.m. to just after 2 p.m., people from different organizations, schools, churches, and other groups formed teams and took to a day of food, fun and friendly competition.
The morning started off overcast and mildly warm, perfect weather to begin a long day of racing and activity. As the day progressed, the sun was intense, but kids and families walked around with wide smiles on their faces in the midst of the southern summer heat. Plenty of racers and non-racers alike showed up making the event a huge success.
Kick off started at 9 a.m. with some remarks from the president of North American Lighting and later from Randy Pettus, the executive director of Shoals Scholar Dollars. An a capella rendition of the national anthem was sung right before a brief introduction to the history of dragon boat racing and the ceremonial awakening of the dragon. After general rules were read off to participants, the first two teams lined up at the docks to put on their life jackets and get racing.
This year 15 teams signed up to participate, but Randy Pettus hopes for double that number when the festival returns to the Shoals again next October. “Two teams race each other at a time with the amount of teams,” Pettus said. “We’re hoping to grow this so that we can get to a three or even a four-team race at a time.”
Each team was made up of 20 rowers within the boat and one drummer at the head of the boat to keep time for the rowers. A professional steerer sat at the back of the boat to help guide the teams along the course set out on the Tennessee River.
Every member of the team was equipped with a life jacket for safety measures. Luckily, no one had any mishaps that would have required using the life jacket for an emergency. Safety was a major priority for the festival planners. A medical personnel tent was set up near the front end of the festival close to the stage in case quick medical attention was required. The team members also received prior training regarding safety measures and procedures before participating in the races.
The teams had only one week of practice and preparation before the big day on Saturday when their skills were put to the test during the races. The members had to learn how to use the paddles to manipulate the speed and direction of their longboats. Before each boat headed for the course, the teams would listen out for the steerer to say, “Paddles up.”
Team members dressed in matching t-shirts according to their own theme, while the drummers took their dress a step further. Many of the drummers decided to add extra flare to their looks with a tutu, fun hats or even full costume. This allowed them to stand out as the head of the boat.
Pettus said, “The drummers are encouraged to dress up and wear costumes because they don’t row. All they do is keep the time.”
All of the longboats and paddles were decorated as well. The paddles specifically were painted by the talented Patrick Syesta. The longboats were supplied by Dynamic Boating. Four boats were rented for these races. This worked out smoothly as only two teams would race at a time.
Along with specialized t-shirts, most of the groups had creative team names. North American Lighting was “Lighting the Way,” The Shoals Chamber of Commerce was “Business After Oars” and First Presbyterian was the “Boat of Many Colors.”
Individualized tents and festive signs covered McFarland Park. Attendees were welcome to walk around and visit the different tents as well as food vendors at any time during the festival but especially during the breaks in-between races.
There were three main rounds of races. Round one began early in the day with all participating teams. Round two started around noon, and round three, the final round, took place shortly after 1 p.m.
However, the races were not standard. It was not a situation where teams align side by side and wait for a sound off to see who can make it to a finish line first. These races were based on fastest average times it took each team to complete the course within the three rounds.
Smokin’ on the Boulevard “Smoke on the Water” took first place in round one, closely followed by North American Lighting and Bank Independent. A lunch break followed immediately after all the teams returned to the docks and made it safely out of the boats.
Even the lunch break was filled with plenty of entertainment, from the tent decorations for each team, to live music from local rock band Blind the Sky. This year the UNA drumline was unable to attend the Shoals Dragon Boat Festival, but the parade of the drummers featured all of the drummers from the different teams and was a great way to collect donations for Shoals Scholar Dollars.
All of the proceeds of the Shoals Dragon Boat Festival go to Shoals Scholar Dollars, an organization which aims to provide scholarships to high school students of the Lauderdale and Colbert County school systems.
Attendees continued to lounge out, walk around and look at each group’s theme while also supporting various food vendors. There was cotton candy, corn dogs and hot dogs, burgers and fries, pizza, Philly Cheesesteaks and more. Just past the tents stood a giant inflatable slide for the younger kids.
Two of the teams present represented UNA: UNA Geography and UNA Military Veterans Alliance, which joined forces with the Florence Rotary Club. UNA Senior and U.S. Navy Veteran Shannon Stoddard enjoyed her time out at the festival alongside some fellow students and rowers. “My favorite thing about Dragon Boat [Festival] is the teamwork, team spirit, and as a veteran it reaffirms your feel of community and team spirit. Teamwork is a huge thing in the military.”
Round two of the races started up again around noon. The racers were more confident the second time around as they had learned the ropes of maintaining the boats earlier in the morning during the first round of races. Smokin’ on the Boulevard managed to snag yet another win.
From the second round, the top eight teams with the fastest completion times were able to make it to the finals. During another rest and hydration break, teams that made it to round three participated in a bidding of the steerers. North American Lighting stole the show with a bid of $525 for their guide for the final races.
One last dynamic round would determine the overall winner. Once every team completed their course, the times between the three rounds were averaged to reveal the winner. In first place with an average completion time of about 56 seconds was Smokin’ on the Boulevard “Smoke on the Water.” North American Lighting “Lighting the Way” placed second, and Constellium Team 1 “Rollin on the River” placed third.
All 21 members of the top three teams received their respective medals (gold, silver, or bronze), and the teams collectively won one of the intricately decorated paddles. Other awards were given to Tasus for Best Team Spirit, Constellium for Best Team Tent, First Presbyterian for First Place t-shirt design and Smokin’ on the Water for Best Drummer.
The Shoals Dragon Boat Festival is estimated to return again the second week of October in 2020.