Sinewy arms straining, 20 men paddle their canoe rapidly and in perfect synchrony around a bend in the New River. A drummer in the front of the canoe beats out the stroke cadence while a steersman standing in the rear keeps the boat on course. Another boat behind them, this one filled with a motley crew of various ages and sexes, all paddling erratically but having a gay old time, tries in vain to catch the first boat. Neither of them is a typical canoe; they're dragon boats, the largest flat-water racing canoes in the world. And they've come to Fort Lauderdale this weekend for the inaugural Dragon Boats and Buskers Festival.
"Dragon-boat racing derives from a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend," says Scott Walker, head of Winnipeg-based FMG Dragon Boats, the outfit helping the City of Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation Department put the event together. In the legend, a popular nobleman, fed up with the direction his dynastic government has chosen to follow ("See? Nothing changes," smiles Walker), throws himself into the sea to end it all. A group of fishermen in their canoes, which have gaily painted dragons' heads and tails, races to his rescue. Since that time, the Chinese have held dragon-boat races every year during the New Moon Festival.
Forty teams will race in six boats on Saturday. Three boatloads at a time race against one another, trying to get the best time in what should be a two-and-a-half minute sprint from Esplanade Park across from the Museum of Discovery and Science to Huizenga Plaza across from Las Olas Riverfront. There'll be a heat every 20 minutes, so you're sure to catch one during a stroll along the Riverwalk.
The dragon-boat festival is being held in conjunction with the Chinese New Year, and a special program Friday night highlights the holiday. Put on by the Coral Springs Chinese Cultural Association, the celebration at Esplanade Park includes folk dances, music and song, dragon and lion dances, and plenty of fireworks.
Mardi Gras is also given a nod with a concert of blues, Dixieland, and zydeco. These good times roll Friday night at the Huizenga Plaza bandstand.
Throughout the weekend, buskers (even though they get second billing) will be out in full force along the Riverwalk, treating folks to juggling, acrobatics, mime, chant, and other medieval performance art. Vendors of arts and crafts will set up in front of the Old Post Office on Second Street, and a children's interactive play area will be found in front of the Discovery Museum. A 40-foot replica of a dragon boat will be on hand for kids to board. And if this doesn't placate the river dragons, nothing will.