Dragon boats look to return to Schuylkill

The Schulkill Dragons, an all-women dragon boat team, has high hopes of qualifying to compete on the international level. With a few nationally competitive paddlers on board, and an aggressive tournament schedule this summer, the Philadelphia team believes it has a chance for the Club Crew Championships in Ravena, Italy, in 2014.

But first, the Schuylkill Dragons want to get back on the Schuylkill River.

The Dragons have not been on the Schuylkill since 2010, when Hurricane Irene damaged the river wall where many dragon boat teams had tied up their boats. When part of the wall collapsed into the river, boating teams were forced to seek other ports.

Some went downriver, near Bartram’s Garden. Some went upriver. The Dragons went east, to the Cooper River in Pennsauken, New Jersey.

“We’re one of two, maybe three dragon boats (on the Cooper). Mostly it’s high school and adult rowing clubs,” said Aimee Rodriguez, a coach for the Schuylkill Dragons, before an evening practice at the Camden County Boathouse. “We’re trying to be respectful. We’re allowed here, when it’s not really a dragon boat venue. On the Schuylkill there are so many other teams.”

The Camden County Boathouse has its advantages. The state-of-the-art building has ample boat storage, a lounge area, plenty of parking, and bathrooms with real indoor plumbing – all amenities dragon boaters do not enjoy on the Schuylkill.

Nevertheless, the paddlers want to go back home.

“You can take the girls out of Philly, but you can’t take Philly out of the girls,” said Rodriguez.

The Dragons joined a consortium of Philadelphia dragon boat teams, the Schuylkill Paddlers, to negotiate with the the city to build a new dock on the river. For six months they’ve been going back and forth with the Department of Parks and Recreation to gain permission to build a dock on park land.

The Paddlers have offered to pay for the cost of construction, about $38,000, and gift the dock to the city. No land would be transferred. The Paddlers also want the city to grant them right to dock their boats semi-permanently on the dock they’re offering to pay for.

While the Schuylkill River has a long and proud tradition on rowing, dragon boating is comparatively new, with its own unique needs. A dragon boat is a long canoe seating 10 pairs of paddlers. The boats are made of wood, and are very heavy.

“Dragon Boats stay in the water once they are put into the water – they weigh 500 pounds,” said Emilia Restrick, president of the Schuylkill Paddlers consortium. “They’re different from sculls and shells which are put in and out every time they are used. One of the reasons to have the mooring dock is, we keep our boats in the water the entire season.

The Department of Parks and Recreation built a small dock near West River Drive to give the public access to the water on the west side of the river, which is mostly unused. Combined with improved lighting and landscaping, the Department wants to animate the west bank.

But the new dock does not suit the dragon boaters needs. With no finger slips to dock into, when the boats are not in use they have to be tied up to trees along the riverbank. That’s not good for the boats, or the trees.

“I think that Parks and Rec understands the value of dragon boats and the number of people we bring to it,” said Restrick. “We have two festivals – the Independence Dragon Boat Regatta [Nov 1] brings 6,000 people to the river. The big Philadelphia festival in the fall brings 10,000 people.”

The Department of Parks and Recreation is expected to approve the plan. Restick says construction can begin as soon as that happens.

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