Dragon boat: 'We paddle with one heartbeat'

SINGAPORE - Despite being from different age groups & countries, diverse members of dragon boat team find common ground in their sport

A tense silence fills the air as three dragon boats line up side by side at the Kallang River on Saturday afternoon.

Then, on cue, over 60 voices shout their team cheer in unison: "Paddles up! Kick arse! Go Gaelics!"

Drumbeats pump up the team and paddles hit the water in perfect synchronisation as soon as an air horn signals the start of the race.

Says paddler Ramon Madera: "We have one goal, one desire to win. We all share the same passion and we paddle with the same heartbeat."

Two minutes and half a kilometre later, the race is over and the chatter starts.

"Jokes, work life, anything really. We talk about everything under the sun," says the 31-year-old Filipino, who works as an interior designer.

This is family life for the internationally diverse cast of dragon boat team Gaelic Dragons.

Despite its Irish roots, there are fewer than 10 Irish members in the team.

The rest of the 60-odd members, aged between 19 and 60, hail from all over the world, including Singapore.

To the non-Singaporeans, they are the "relatives" they have outside of their home country.

Says engineer Andy Pickering, 42, from the United Kingdom: "This is the only Singaporean family I know. It is the building block where I build my entire life in Singapore upon.

"I had nobody at first when I came in 2008. Without the team, I would not have been able to survive here."

Adds team captain Kerstin Schulze, 34, from Germany: "Many of us would have gone back home if they didn't have the team. It gives us roots, a sense of belonging and a family away from home."

The team's devotion to this "family" is evident from the many hours spent in their weekly routines.

Their regimen consists of a two-hour fitness boot camp on Tuesdays, a two-hour paddling session on Thursdays and three hours of boat training on Saturdays.

That is not all: Every session is followed by supper and drinking sessions till late at night.

Indeed, the first Friday of every month is "Black Friday", where the team goes to Victorian pub The Penny Black to mingle and catch up. Says Madam Schulze: "The Chinese zi char restaurant at Kallang knows us by our green shirts very well."


The 10 Singaporean members in the team sometimes play the role of tour guides, often suggesting food places.

"No lah, not Boat Quay. Go to Katong for popiah and laksa," the Singaporeans would tell the group, says Mr Madera.

Singaporean coach Shawn Quek, 38, disagrees.

"They know where to go better than I do!" he says, laughing.

Mr Quek has coached more than six teams since he left Singapore's national dragon boat team in 2003.

But he says the Gaelic Dragons works and plays the hardest out of the lot.

"It still surprises me that people from so many places and age groups can have the same frequency," he says.

For Mr Madera, it is a way of stepping out of his comfort zone, which is why he avoided joining Filipino dragon boating teams here.

Indeed, his proudest moment was when he represented Singapore instead of his home country in a dragon boat competition in the Philippine island of Boracay last year.

Unfazed about being called a traitor, he maintains: "This is my home now - the Gaelic Dragons is my family."


Many of us would have gone back home if they didn't have the team. It gives us roots, a sense of belonging and a family away from home.

- Team captain Kerstin Schulze

This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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