Dueling Dragons

In ancient China, dragon boats, or long, wooden vessels decorated like the mythical creatures, were fashioned to encourage rainfall and appease the precipitation deities. They gained popularity as a means to pay tribute to Qu Yuan, a warrior poet who committed suicide to protest his kingdom’s takeover. Some scholars even claim that the competitive racing of the garish canoes may have taken place in the original games at Olympia in ancient Greece.

Now fast-forward 2, 000 years, head over to Lower Alabama, and you’ll find dragon boat racing, not in the name of religion or politics, but for good times and giving back. Thanks to local nonprofit The Fuse Project and executive director Grant Zarzour, the olden ritual is getting an amped up philanthropic makeover. On Saturday, June 7, crews from Mobile and Baldwin counties will meet at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center to compete in the Inaugural Dragon Boat Festival amid a lively group of onlookers.

Watercrafts will race three at a time for a length of 250 meters — about two minutes. Each team consists of 20 paddlers and a drum player, whose rhythmic beating ensures that everyone rows in unison. An experienced dragon boater will be provided for each group to help steer the ship. In the days leading up to the competition, there will be several practice sessions, as well as opportunities to socialize with members from other teams. “It’s a chance for 22 people to have a whole lot of fun in a water-based, wild and crazy environment, ” Zarzour says.

Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing, one of several nationwide companies that have jumped on board with the growing trend, will furnish the equipment and offer support. “Dragon boat racing has been going on for about three or four years in the mainstream U.S., ” Zarzour says. “It’s started spreading like wildfire.” Memphis and Montgomery have already held their own highly successful and lucrative races. And now, it’s time for Mobile Bay to get in on the excitement.

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At the festivities, even those opposed to getting wet will still find more than enough ways to be entertained. In conjunction with the competition, expect a heap of other activities, including airboat rides, inflatables, music, food trucks and even hot air balloon rides. Each team is encouraged to set up their own tent, and all can explore local art and vendor booths. The festival is perfect for Mobile because “locals tend to support unique, different events, and we also love to be on the water, ” Zarzour says. “It’s a win-win-win for the competitors, festival-goers and kids who will benefit from the charity projects.”

The Fuse Project

Founded in 2012 by eight young professionals in the Mobile area, The Fuse Project works to support philanthropic endeavors that promote the health, education and social responsibility of local children. Their mantra, “If it’s not wow, it’s not worth doing, ” is quite a tall order. So far, with several incredibly successful projects complete and thousands of dollars raised, they seem to be abiding by that philosophy. Their strategy, according to Zarzour, is to “come up with 10 great ideas, scrap nine and go with the very best one.” And there’s no question that their most recent idea is up to par.

Through the Dragon Boat Festival, The Fuse Project hopes to enlist 50 teams and raise at least $100, 000. The funds are earmarked for two projects to support local underprivileged children. The first is an after-school program for at-risk youth, helping to increase graduation rates, lower the number of suspensions and improve overall morale at local middle schools. The second, in conjunction with the Alabama Coastal Foundation, aims to educate students about the importance of preserving the Delta and surrounding areas. Their goal is to enlist 50 teams and to raise at least $100, 000.

June 7: The Inaugural Dragon Boat Festival

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center • 30945 Five Rivers Blvd., Spanish Fort

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Early registration fees: $1, 000 for corporate teams, $750 for community teams, plus $60 per participant. Registration deadline: May 23.

text by Haley Potts

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