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Thousands drawn to Dragon boat races

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The sounds of hollow drums boomed their steady rhythms across Meadow Lake at Flushing Meadows Corona Park Saturday afternoon as four dragon boats made their way across the waterway to the boathouse.

Thousands of spectators cheered from the shore as the ancient tradition of racing the craft, which has its roots in the more than 2,000-year-old writings of the poet Qu Yuan, roared back to life in the heart of Queens.

The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival drew teams that had been training every weekend in anticipation of the competition and dozens of kites filled the sky, flying high above the New York State Pavilion, as tens of thousands of spectators from all around distracted themselves in-between heats.

In its 21st year, the two-day festival is one of the most treasured and anticipated events of the summer, transforming the park into a buzzing hive of family barbecues and picnics, stages of live music, tents hocking food and wares and a host of other entertainment offerings. Sunday’s races took place despite torrential rains, though some teams were disqualified because not enough of their members showed up for their heats. Attendance was significantly lower than on Saturday and many vendors did not man their tents, according to organizers.

The largest event of the year in the sprawling space that twice held a World’s Fair, the festival hosted more than 180 teams with a total of 2,000 members this year — the most ever to participate in a single year, according to event planners. Each team, many of which were organized by companies or nonprofits, had its turn to pilot one of the 1-ton boats, which are handcrafted with colorful dragon heads and tails at each end, in races through the warm lake water.

The event is a great experience for the athleticism and excitement it requires of all participants, but another of its great strengths is that it brings people of all backgrounds together on the boats and on the sidelines, according to Jennifer Chu, captain of the Team Kaya paddlers, who competed on behalf of Kaya, a Queens community service group.´╗┐

“It’s really the people you paddle with. Win, lose or draw, I was just happy to finish the race with these teammates,” she said just after finishing a heat in which they placed third. “There was so much teamwork and camaraderie, and honestly I feel like we paddled together with, not against, the other teams. It really embraced the essence of dragon boat: pure synchronic­ity.”

The drummer at the front of each boat pounded out a steady beat to show the paddlers how to coordinate their strokes, continuing the legend of Yuan, who wrote of drums being used on a boat to drive away evil spirits.

Ian Brooks was the announcer for the event, and he sat with a microphone on a riser at one end of the lake with the judges, who tallied the races’ winners and losers to determine the standings. He gave an animated appraisal of the HSBC team’s win in a hard-fought Saturday afternoon race.

“HSBC is Lane 4. HSBC is ahead as it passes the qualifying mark,” he said, standing for a better vantage. “HSBC, the world’s local bank, is going to win this by a full boat length. HSBC, and then it’s Goldman Sachs in second.”

After their win, the HSBC boat did a victory lap, showing off their discipline and focus by repeatedly chanting the name of their company and beating out a hand-clapping pattern, to the delight of onlookers.

Himmler Joachim, 22, and a friend took a train into the city from his home in Middletown, N.Y., just for the event. He said he has looked forward to the festival since last August, when he heard about it but was unable to go.

“It’s really beautiful how they´╗┐ synchronize when they paddle,” Joachim said Saturday as he viewed a close race from the water’s edge. “I like Asian culture and I like festivals. I just had to be here. This is my last vacation before I have to go back to school for the fall. It got better and better as it went along. My friend and I posed with the winning team. I walked around and got a girl’s number. It’s fun. I came, I saw, I conquered. And I’m coming back tomorrow.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

Updated 11:30 am, October 12, 2011
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