Dragon boat racing returns to Camden County July 28

More than 30 teams will compete at the third Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival

Jon Gardiner / Special to the Sun: Scenes from the 2017 Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival. This year’s event will be held Saturday, July 28, from 8:30 a.m. through 4 p.m. at Cooper River Park.

An ancient Chinese sport is returning to the Cooper River later this month.

Thirty-three teams have registered so far to compete in the third Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival, which will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 28, at Cooper River Park.

Billed as the fastest-growing watersport in the world, dragon boating involves teams of 20 paddlers competing in races of various distances. Each 40-foot boat also features a drummer at the front and a steersperson in the back.

All of the boats are also decorated with a colorful dragon head at the bow and a tail at the stern.

The sport is more about synchronicity and teamwork than athleticism, several dragon boat captains told The Sun ahead of the competition.

“It’s a sport that anybody can do,” said Maureen Kane, of Moorestown, who is captain of the Cherry Hill-based EvoFit Dragons team.

“The best teams are those that work together,” said Wendy Schwartz, captain of the River Sirens, the local club team that started the festival. “It’s actually beautiful to watch a good team paddle.”

Schwartz, of Mt. Laurel, said the competition is divided into an all-women’s division and a mixed division. Within both divisions, there will be races between competitive club teams and community teams, which are usually made up of families, friends or co-workers. All of the races in both divisions will be 200 meters.

Most of the athletes come from South Jersey and the greater Philadelphia area, but there will be squads with members from Pittsburgh, New York and Maryland, Schwartz said.

Maureen Burke, of Haddon Township, is captain of Twisted Sisters, an all-female team competing in the community category at the festival. Most of the group’s members are friends and friends of friends, she said.

“It’s a ton of fun,” Burke said. “We have a blast. It’s just a good fun day on the river.”

Experience in dragon boating isn’t essential, at least in the races in the community category. Burke said seasoned paddlers are on hand to help. Her advice is to make sure the team is on the same page.

“You try to be in sync,” Burke added. “Otherwise, it’s like a broken cog in a wheel.”

Jon Gardiner / Special to the Sun

Schwartz’s River Sirens, another all-women’s team, is competing in the club category. The squad practices regularly and is mostly made up of athletes from Haddonfield and Haddon Township, though a few come from as far away as Atlantic County and Mansfield Township.

The River Sirens founded the Cooper River Dragon Boat Festival back in 2015. Schwartz said the idea was to bring the “joy and thrill” of the sport to the forefront.

“We wanted to share what we do with the community,” she said.

Kane, whose team won the festival’s inaugural mixed community title, said she has seen the sport help participants who did not consider themselves athletes before getting involved in dragon boat racing.

“It changes people’s lives,” Kane said. “I see the confidence it puts in people.”

Vendors and a DJ will also be at Cooper River Park on July 28 during the festival, and spectators are encouraged to come out and watch the races, Schwartz said.

The boats will be launching at the docks near Cuthbert and Park boulevards in Cherry Hill, and the finish line will be near the war memorial at Cooper River Park.

For more information or to register a team, visit cooperriverdbf.org.