A 40-foot-long “Dragon Boat” oared by venture capitalists sped toward the shore, neck and neck with another vessel powered by bicyclists. The result? Almost too close to call.
The dramatic photo finish took place on Long Wharf Saturday in the final race in the second annual Dragon Boat Regatta in New Haven Harbor.
The final race saw three 20-person rowing teams crowded into long and narrow canoes to race 150 meters from the end of the Long Wharf Pier down toward shore. The three vying for the trophy: Defending champs Nightmares on Elm Street (from early-stage investor Elm Street Ventures); last year’s runner-ups, out for vengeance, Wheel Good Paddlers (from the New Haven Bicycling Club); and Harbor Mussels (from the engineering consultant Langan), a motley crew led by a guy in a banana suit.
After two fog horns signaled go, the competitors plunged their oars into the salty water of the Long Island Sound. Seated in pairs (next to someone with roughly the same weight, to keep the boat balanced), the teams had placed their biggest members in the middle, acting as the boat’s engine with their strokes. A drummer, watching from the bow, kept time, as the rowers yelled back counts in unison with the beat.
Nearing the orange buoys that marked the end of the 150 meter course, the venture capitalists and cyclists both heaved to cross the line first. Practically a tie, their teams matched so evenly that officials couldn’t declare a winner.
After a review that kept the teams in agonizing suspense for nearly half an hour, the refs called it. Winning by just five-hundreths of a second, Nightmares on Elm Street kept the crown for a second year in a row.
That photo finish ended the nonprofit Canal Dock Boathouse, Inc.’s (CDBi) second annual benefit on a radiant Saturday afternoon that felt like the start of summer.
The crowds of regatta spectators and food truck eaters offered a glimpse of the bustle that might soon be a permanent fixture once CDBi finishes building a modern boathouse on Long Wharf Drive, with an event space, a waterfront promenade, storage and docks.
“New Haven is a port city, and it’s been cut from the water for way too many years,” said Rob Bettigole. A managing partner at Elm Street Ventures, he captained the winning team and also sits on CDBi’s board. “We really think that this will reconnect people to the water the way it has in other cities.”
John Pescatore, the fundraiser’s organizer, said that once construction wraps — expected by February 2018 — rowing, kayaking, sailing and stand-up paddle-boarding will launch from the boathouse. And all of it will be free for New Haven public school students. The University of New Haven will also host marine biology seminars inside, and the U.S. Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking Foundation, which currently offers free services for former service-members with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities, will move its headquarters there.
The many partners in attendance Saturday (including the Oarchitects, the Gregg Wies & Gardner architects who designed the boathouse) reminded Pescatore about the importance of teamwork — an essential quality for anyone who wants to win a dragon boat race.
Unlike an individual kayaker, who’s free to chop the water at his own pace, the dragon boats reach top velocity only when their rowers strike the water together. Without cooperation, passengers are stuck on a wet and slow voyage.
“Stay together. Even though it’s a race, it’s all about timing,” Darlene Goldfinch, a coach from 22 Dragons, the company that managed Saturday’s regatta, told the first heat. “If you’re a second out of sync, pull out and get right back in.” A Pittsburgh resident, Goldfinch said paddling the boats is all about “technique and power.”
Those lessons were familiar to Marco Marini, a Navy veteran from West Haven. Legally blind and disabled by multiple sclerosis, he’s a champion indoor rower who regularly exercises with the veterans foundation. A kayaker, he said he appreciated the camaraderie of rowing with several military guys.
Tuff Girls & Dragonauts
Teamwork was also on display in the first all-female crew the competition’s ever had: Tuff Girls. Rocking pink bandanas, these women all work out together at a gym in Hamden. The exercise studio’s founder, Christa Doran, predicted the ladies would fare well because they practice pulling and core work at the gym. “Most people are pretty weak in their back. In this culture, we sit a lot; we’re in this sort of hunched-over posture all the time,” Doran said. “When we came out here to row, we were surprised at how our strength translated.”
Not all the competition was in top physical shape. Pescatore had emailed Laura Rosado, a student at Wilbur Cross High School, wondering if a few of her friends wanted to supplement another boat. Rosado cobbled together a full roster of classmates in just a few hours. Without much practice (some needed to be taught how to hold an oar), the students put up a strong fight on the water, reaching the middle of the pack. It was grueling, though, one admitted. “The first half is like short. But then second half is like, ‘Get me out of here,’” Rosado said.
The teens did their best in the cheer competition, winning the prize for a choreographed number of chanting, claps, dances and poses that a Wilbur Cross cheerleader wrote for them. Mostly juniors, the students said they’d be back next year to have another shot at taking it all home.
And the Dragonauts, a team of retirees who know each other from the golf course, felt they didn’t stand a chance against the burlier rowers. Instead, they focused on winning best campsite.
After being told by their captain to go medieval in theme, Lisa Davenport typed into Google how to “turn a pop-up canopy into a castle.” Three hours later, using cardboard boxes from a washer-dryer set a teammate had just purchased, Davenport had a fortress built from “a little gray paint, a little black paint and lots of duct tape,” she said.
After hitting the water for their final race — and ending in last place — the Dragonauts cheerily poured out rounds of Fireball shots and waited to find out how the competition shook out. (The Dragonouts did indeed nab the award.)
The fastest teams had to wait until the awards ceremony to find out won the tight final. When the announcer said Nightmares on Elm Street had edged one out, a groan went up from the bikers. After picking up their silver medals, the cyclists slouched off to disassemble their camp. But first they had a word for their rivals, who’d bested them twice: “We’ll challenge you to a bike race tomorrow.”