Blind dragon boat racers paddle ahead
Silver Spring woman founds team for visually impaired
Lined up in rows of twos, nearly 20 people sat atop buckets outside the Gangplank Marina on the Southwest Waterfront of Washington, D.C., earlier this month practicing paddling commands and drills.
"Hold water!" North Beach resident Winkie Day shouted to the beat of a drum. "Paddle backward! Reverse twist! Paddles up!"
The team members followed Day's every command as they took part in a practice session of the Out of Sight Dragons, a dragon boat racing team for the blind and visually impaired that was started by Silver Spring resident Maybelle Kagy.
Dragon boat racing is a competitive water sport based on an ancient Chinese legend in which Qu Yuan, a great Chinese poet and adviser to the emperor of the Chu Kingdom, became so upset over government corruption that he jumped into the Mei Lo River and drowned, Kagy explained. His friends raced out to save him, beating drums and pounding their paddles on the river's waters to keep the fish from eating his body.
Dragon boating brings this legend to life. Teams of roughly 20 paddlers sit in rows of twos and paddle to the beat of a drum. Another person sits at the back of the boat and steers. The sport is growing in popularity, including in D.C., where more than 50 teams competed last year in the annual D.C. Dragon Boat Festival.
The Out of Sight Dragons are preparing for this year's competition, which will be held May 21-22 at the Thompson Boat Center in Georgetown.
Kagy, 73, is the force behind the Out of Sight Dragons. A retired teacher, Kagy works as a counselor for a Lion's Club summer camp for the blind and visually impaired. While working at Camp Merrick in Nanjemoy, Md., Kagy said she realized how capable people without eyesight can be, but how few team sports exist for the visually-impaired.
Her son, an organizer for the D.C. Dragon Boat Festival, approached her last year about starting a local team exclusively for the visually impaired, she said.
"I thought, OK, there's a boat, and they don't have to really see, because there's a steerer and they paddle to the beat of the drum,' " she said. "... And so I thought, Wow, here is an opportunity for them to participate in a team sport where they can get the excitement of working together in unison.'"
Kagy began working with a blind co-captain, Oral Miller, who helps with recruitment and is the president of the D.C. Council of the Blind. They brought together visually-impaired residents from Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia to form the team.
"It's doable, and it's learnable," said Miller, 78, of the team's draw for visually-impaired people.
The team's members range in age from their 30s to their 80s, Miller said, adding that most of the group is older because retired people often have more time on Saturdays for practice. The members include lawyers, social workers and staff members at the U.S. Census Bureau, he said.
Kagy discovered in December that she has macular degeneration, a degenerative eye disease. She is being treated and retains most of her vision, she said.
The team's practices are similar to those of other dragon boat racing teams, but logistics are tough. At the team's first practice of the year, earlier this month, five volunteers had to steer more than a dozen blind and visually-impaired teammates down a long, curvy dock, then assist them into the flat-bottomed boat.
But once they're on the water, the team resembles any other.
Elly Waters, 83, from Chevy Chase, said she used to canoe as a child, but was intrigued when she heard there was a team for low-vision people such as herself.
"I thought, Well, this sounds like a lark, and there's no fool like an old fool, so why not try it?' "
In last year's D.C. Dragon Boat Festival, the team competed after completing three practices, and didn't place. This year, many teammates said they want to step up their game, and the team is hosting more weekly practices.
Each Saturday, they spend about 50 minutes on the water. The cost to participate is roughly $100 a season, which pays for use of the boats, dock space and membership in the D.C. Dragon Boat Club.
Kagy said that while the team is looking to improve, its mission is to empower the group by allowing members the opportunity to participate in a team sport.
"Just to be able to count together and say a cheer together is very exciting for them," she said. "And I do remember the first time we were out on the boat, we paddled and paddled and paddled, and our steerer said, OK, stop paddling. Now put your hand in the water.' And they could feel the water passing through their hands. And you ought to [have seen] the smiles on their faces. They were just thrilled to be there. They knew that they were moving, and they were the power behind the boat. So it was a thrill for them."