Up the coast -- with a paddler

Times Staff Writer

From the start, the Fireballs zeroed in on the hometown Belmont Shore dragon boat as the one to beat.

Most of its tanned, blue-shirted paddlers live close to the shore. Some are racing veterans. And when the two teams stood together on stage to sing the national anthem at the opening ceremony, the Belmont Shore youngsters just looked older and more experienced.

“They’re always beating us,” said Nicholas Yatroussis, 10, a feisty Fireball from West Los Angeles, as he rested between races at Saturday’s 2007 ViewSonic Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival. Although the Fireballs came in second after Belmont Shore in the morning race, they still had a shot in the afternoon contest.


Besides, Nicholas said, his favorite moment is when he experiences the satisfaction of crossing the finish line -- win or lose.

The annual Long Beach festival has long been a favorite of dragon boat racers, and dozens of teams have converged on the Long Beach Marine Stadium this weekend to compete in their long trademark boats with colorful dragons’ heads and tails, paddling to the beat of drummers positioned at the boats’ prows.

In addition to the adult teams, boats crewed by younger paddlers compete in other divisions. The event continues today and is open to the public.

Dragon boating is believed to have started in Yueyang, China, more than 2,500 years ago, when local fishermen used their boats to try to rescue a well-known poet-statesman who drowned himself. The fishermen are said to have beat drums and hit the water with paddles in an attempt to appease the water dragon.

Today, the sport is soaring in popularity across the nation. It is similar to crew, but with larger teams and distinctive dragon-headed boats.

The Long Beach event even attracted four elementary school teams with paddlers from throughout the Los Angeles area, some as young as 7 or 8. They included the Cabrillo Dragons, two teams organized just a few months ago and based in San Pedro.

The Cabrillo coach crouched beside two young girls.

“You guys are in the front of the boat, right?” he instructed. “Everyone’s going to be looking at you. Keep your eye on your partner. Listen to the drum.”

Parents said they like the sport because it emphasizes teamwork and coordination. Although single players can shine at sports such as soccer, the rhythmic team paddling required in dragon boat racing requires the children to work together, they said.

In the end, Belmont Shore came in first, followed by the Fireballs and the two Cabrillo teams. Sophie Goodmanson, 10, of Long Beach, a member of the winning team, said her legs trembled with excitement as the boat neared the finish line.

As the last boats reached the shoreline, Belmont Shore team members lined up with their paddles angled in front of them, forming a canopy that members of the rival teams walked through.

“One of our best scores yet,” said Nicholas, undeterred by the Fireballs’ silver finish. “If this keeps up, we can get first place next year. Hopefully.”