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Paducah’s Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boat races began in China more than 2,500 years ago. In Paducah, for one Saturday each September, these colorful boats rule the Ohio River to raise money for the River Discovery Center in the Paducah Dragon Boat Festival.

The event, which began here in 2012, follows international dragon boat racing rules. The 40-foot long boats have dragon’s heads and colorful dragon tails.

Julie Harris of the River Discovery Center explained that the boat races have their roots in naval warfare. “The oared long boats were great at illustrating the military prowess and they were fast and maneuverable,” said Harris.

Competitors prepare for weeks. “There are just a lot of preparations. You start a couple of months in advance, because you don’t want to just come up on it and then you don’t have anything,” said Tina Painter, captain of the Mighty Mariners team.

There are 16 paddlers in a boat, and the Paducah event requires that six of the team members must be women. A drummer sits at the front and sets the rhythm for the rowers.

“The drummer is picked by who is willing to do it,” said Kara Harris, captain of Rock-N- Rowers. “A drummer, I think, is the scariest spot to be. It’s not a very sturdy seat. There’s nothing to hold onto. You just wrap your legs around the drum.”

Drummers often dress up and there’s a fashion show where the crowd can see the costumes.

Before the race begins, the eye dotting ceremony takes place, where selected team members paint their dragon eyes.

“It’s an old Chinese ritual that represents awakening the dragon for the races,” said Harris.

A professional steersman helps guide the boat. The steersmen are provided by 22Dragons, a Canadian company that provides the boats and drums as well as oversight for the event.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2104, which originally aired on January 23, 2016. Watch the full episode.