Dual Victory for Penang Forward at the Melaka River International Dragon Boat Race

Upon hearing that the Penang International Dragon Boat race had been cancelled due to a long drought our team was crestfallen. This event takes place twice a year in Penang and Penang Forward has not missed an event since forming in the ‘80s. Even though other races are available the local Penang race is the team’s first choice.

We had trained hard both on and off the boat with physical tests, cross training and extra rowing sessions. Our training was not to be in vain though and we were thrilled as we found the Melaka River International Festival Dragon Boat Race on the same day. Spirits were high on the seven hour bus ride with everyone getting a chance to speak or sing using the on-board microphone. Some of the comments were jocular while others chose to give sincere wishes for success. There was even a rendition of Queen’s We Are The Champions.

We arrived late so as soon as we got there it was time to suit up and get to work by practicing at the race site. After practice, the entire team was able to enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage City that is Melaka. We strolled around Jonker Walk, took in the local scenery and indulged in the top notch local quisine which included satay celup and durian cendol.

On the race day, there were 56 teams comprising 840 participants taking part in the Melaka River International Festival Dragon Boat Race. There was a variety of skill levels to be seen. Some of the other teams were obviously in it to win it while others were not exactly full of professionals. (In fact, some teams that looked they were there on a dare. One group of quinquagenerians appeared as though they were rowing on Ambien. Another boat barely had the energy to make it 250m. Two of them just through in the towel and stopped about 10m short. Some teams' timing was so off they looked like centipedes and two rowers from another team could be seen slapping paddles together the entire race. These rowers were obviously not our competition though.) PFSC sent three teams to compete in the race. These were the men’s teams A and C and the mixed men’s and women’s Team B. Team B didn’t get a fair shake. The announcer was going to start the race when our boat was almost touching another boat. As we were drifting towards the other boat again and the steersman was trying to orient us in the right direction the command to row was given. We were rotating to the left and partially underwater as we started paddling. It was like starting a one hundred meter dash lying on your side.
Particularly for the new rowers, it was still a good learning experience and one worth having attempted. As Teddy Roosevelt stated, “Far better is it to dare mighty thing, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Team A won in Heat 1 and Team C in heat 5 each by a considerable margin. The wins in the quarterfinals were integral to keep both teams in the winner’s pool lest they have to row even more races to place. Team A and C both rowed together in the semi-finals. This was obviously a physically challenging race even to a novice viewer. There was intensity in the faces and physical movement of Penang Forward’s rowers. Victory was clinched with the margin much smaller than the previous rounds. The energy in the air was palpable and the intoxicating scent of victory now detectable.

Then came the finals. Our muscles were sore at this point, but you’re dealing with the wrong team if you think that means we were going to put forth less than maximum effort. As the command to row was given we went beserk and red lined our bodies like Mustangs about to stall. Our veins pumped battery acid during the last fifty meters. As the body felt like it was giving out we let our mind take over and pushed our way to first and second place amidst chants of
“Forward! Forward! Forward!” Victory was made even sweeter when the organizer decided to award Penang Forward Sports Club the Asia Golden Dragon Award which is given to a team that “demonstrated good team spirit, discipline, sportsmanship and good timing during the race.”

There is another quality that rowing requires which is synchronicity and uniformity of movement. At times rowing feels like something referred to by biologists as an emergent property. Emergent properties are based on the idea that when a group of organisms work together they can produce something better than the capabilities of the sum of their parts. When added together, the individual capabilities of ants are not enough to build an ant hill nor bees to
build a hive etc. With emergent properties we see that the combination of powers of organisms is not additive though, it is multiplicative. If each individual is given a power of one, ten of them working together do not have a power of ten, but one hundred. When rowers are all pushing to the maximum capacity in perfect synchronization this can be felt as the boat moves with such speed and grace. It feels to be that the power of the boat’s forward momentum is much more than what ten individuals could do when placed together. It is truly an emergent property.

I am a new member to Penang Forward and I would like to add a personal anecdote. After the race I congratulated a senior member and he honestly mentioned that the other team in the finals was fitter. I enquired how we beat them then. He answered “stroke, pace and” after a notable pause “…heart. We had more heart.” “More heart,” I replied. “I like that.” Heart can’t be taught or developed. It can’t be trained like a muscle. It can’t be bought like high quality
gear. You either have it or you don’t. It’s what distinguishes true competitors from tourists. And from what I have seen both while on the boat and off Penang Forward has it in spades.

Last but not least, we would like to thank you Texchem Resources Bhd for sponsoring us and making this trip a meaningful one

By Scott Collister

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