The second annual Bucks County Dragon Boat Festival was a big event executed by a small sta of volunteers.
Chris Wetzel, vice president of the Bucks County Dragon Boat Association, got the idea for his organization to host its own event after he got hooked on the sport of dragon boat racing and started attending competitions.
Last year’s festival drew about 1,200 competitors and thousands of spectators. This year’s took place again on Sept. 24 at Lake Luxembourg in Core Creek Park in Langhorne, featuring about 1,700 participants and 7,000 spectators.
A First Time for Everything
Prior to last year’s debut festival, Wetzel had never organized a large event, but in a way he had been planning this for years.
“The logistics behind the whole event were basically just in my head, so to speak,” he says. “It just comes from being at a lot of events and seeing what people do. I obviously want to make ours the best event possible, so you learn from other people and figure out what works and what you can do a little bit better.”
Planning for the event began with online registration in January. “I have to build a schedule,” Wetzel says. “As the teams are evolving, and as the teams are registering, I’ll see that a division is maxing out, and make it work. I have this big spreadsheet I look at, and I see the max we can have in each division so that we can have an efficient day.”
By June 1, all slots for teams were filled up. Wetzel and Laurie McHugh, president of the Bucks County Dragon Boat Festival, worked together arranging for boats, food vendors and food trucks, plus tents and temporary bathrooms.
As the Day Approaches
That’s a lot of work, but things get really busy in the weeks leading up to the big day. An operations team consisting of volunteers starts planning the setup, including where to set up tents and vendor areas, mapping out the parking lot, and setting up the racing lanes in the lake.
Arranging the entertainment is another task. Spectators and racers can visit vendor tents and also enjoy such entertainment as Chinese lion dancers, Japanese taiko drums, bands and demonstrations of water sports.
Boats arrived at the park the Friday before, and the delivery of those needed to be supervised. That also was when the volunteers began decorating the park.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without a good pool of volunteers, and the volunteers come from our club,” Wetzel says. “But all the actual planning, coordination of the boats, coordination of the tents, the vendors, the food, the medals, the entertainment, the sound, all that stuff is stuff I’ve coordinated.”
Last year’s event had its hitches—three food trucks didn’t arrive, and neither did garbage cans. Wetzel and his team handled the trash situation by snapping into action and providing teams with large trash bags. To avoid another setback with food, he brought in a vendor that provides festival food the park uses for events, in addition to food trucks.
Dragon Boat Racing Roots
Dragon boat racing dates back 2,000 years to China, and started to make an impact in the Philadelphia area in the early 1980s when, according to Wetzel, a Hong Kong business association reached out to the city’s rowing community and put a team together. “Since then, the heart of dragon boating really has been in Philadelphia, with a club down there and a lot of Team USA paddlers are based out of there, the coaches are based out of there,” Wetzel says. “Since 1983, it has dramatically increased— now it’s definitely all over the country.” Boats are 41-feet long, and have 20 paddles and 10 rows in which competitors sit side by side and paddle in unison. A drummer in the front plays a drum rhythmically to set the pace. At the rear of the boat is a “sweep” or “steersman” who steers the boat. The boats are made to look like dragons with heads and tails, and sometimes the sides will be painted to look like scales, but those touches are purely decorative and don’t affect the actual racing.
Wetzel got involved in dragon boat racing six years ago when his wife tried it. Four years ago they started the Bucks County Dragon Boat Association, which has paddlers of all levels, from recreational to people who have tried out for Team USA. The members of the association participate in serious competitions, but dragon boat racing has also become popular as a fundraising activity, where racers of all levels are invited to compete. Companies and organizations participate to raise money for a cause, and for team-building. St. Mary Medical Center, which helps sponsor the event, had 17 teams participate. Orange Theory Fitness had teams from 10 different studios competing and Hamilton Surgery Center, for which Wetzel is CEO, also had teams sign up.
Racing for a Good Cause
Last year’s festival raised about $31,000 for the Bucks County Housing Group’s three food pantries, and while official numbers weren’t released at press time, Wetzel says he expected to top that number this year. In addition to money, teams and spectators donated more than 6,000 pounds of nonperishable food at the event, doubling what was collected last year.
“At the community-based level, it’s typically associated with some type of fundraising,” Wetzel says. “At the more competitive level, it’s really more about the competition, and it’s not usually tied to fundraising, or a small percentage will be fundraising. But it is a way that teams can on their own come together for a cause to raise money for whatever they want to do, individually.”
Another task Wetzel handles is ordering medals for winning teams. He says he takes great satisfaction with seeing medals displayed in the area—at banks, in stores and even in cars hanging from rearview mirrors.
“That’s when you know that day gave them an impression and they want to come back,” he says. “I’m sure that’s a big factor why we sold out four months in advance as compared to two months.”