Navigating a floating, wooden, dragon along Brush Creek isn’t rocket science — but it’s close.
“It’s about fluid dynamics,” said Charlie Zheng, a University of Kansas professor of aerodynamics and a member of the Jayhawk Dragon Boat Team.
“The drag, the lift of the boat is very similar to an airplane,” said Zheng, who put together his first eight-person dragon boat racing team this spring with students and professors from KU’s Chinese scholars program. “The secret is for the team to follow the same rhythm, like music.”
But most of all, it’s fun, according to the general consensus from all 10 teams that took on the boat race challenge Saturday morning. Especially when hundreds of cheering onlookers pack the Country Club Plaza hillsides along Brush Creek.
While President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China were meeting in California this weekend in talks to promote U.S.-China relations, the ninth annual Kansas City International Dragon Boat Festival sponsored by the Society for Friendship With China and the Kansas City-Xi’an Sister City Committee, got underway at its usual time: 10 a.m. on the second Saturday in June.
The four, 40-feet boats, designed to look like vibrant, open-mouth Chinese dragons, were gifts more than a decade ago from China to the Kansas City friendship society. The tradition in China is that people gather and eat rice dumplings while watching the race. And so it was on the Plaza, where dumplings were served under tents along Ward Parkway.
There have been a few years when the boat races got rained out.
Not this year. The weather was perfect: 79 degrees and sunny.
“We have communities from every nationality in Kansas City represented here, all getting along on a beautiful spring day,” said Mayor Sly James. “It really shows what Kansas City is all about: good people, doing a good thing, having a good time.”
The Beta Theta Pi fraternity team from the University of Missouri-Kansas City had serious expectations of walking away with winners’ bragging rights.
It won two years ago, and another UMKC Greek organization tied for third place last year. Beta had a reputation to uphold.
The UMKC Beta crew was the last team to take a boat up the creek, so its members had time to dissect other teams’ mistakes. And there were plenty: poor weight distribution, no rhythm, no team work. Some boats collided. Others crashed into the concrete retaining walls.
Two boats tipped over in practice rounds, dumping members of both teams into the creek.
Gunawan Yuwono of Olathe, a member of the Ethnic Enrichment Commission crew, brought his wife and two sons to watch him race. But he wasn’t making any bets on how his team would do.
“I’m just hoping we don’t flip,” said Yuwono, an Indonesian who’d never rowed before.
Hsuan Niu of Taiwan, who was rowing for Sun Marble, a wholesale stone distributor in Lenexa, felt nervous.
“I can’t swim,” Niu said.
He didn’t have to. Despite a rocky start, the Sun Marble crew beat its competition rowing the 500-yard race under the Sister City walking bridge, up to the Wornall Road Bridge, around a red buoy and back.
Zaya Usukhbaya, a Mongolian student at Park University, had to convince her team of international students to compete after their boat flipped during practice. Usukhbaya tried to keep rhythm beating a big drum situated at the front of her crew’s boat. Every member spoke a different language.
“I yelled out directions to them, and then I heard them repeated in so many different languages,” Usukhbaya said, laughing at the communication confusion on her boat. “The trick is teamwork.”
That’s what the UMKC Beta team counted on. And they had a plan: Put one strong rower in the front, one in the middle, one in the back.
“Keep the rudder out of the water,” said Ben Castro, Beta Theta Pi vice president. They figured good rhythm was important, too, so Nick Lawson, a bass guitar player, would bang the drum.
And they talked smack (defined in Urban Dictionary as “the art of telling another person off ... while in the heat of competition”) about how they would crush the competition.
Sure enough, Beta made the finals. A team from Kansas City Parks and Recreation beat the Rotary Club in the international division. And in the college division, it came down to a border war, kind of — UMKC Beta against KU.
A close race. But UMKC ended up turned sideways on its way back.
KU, and its science, won.