The Strokes know when you drop your pace

Royal Albert Dock

Royal Albert Dock
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On Sunday morning, the water in the Royal Albert Dock was calm and flat, and reflected the sky like a mirror.

Sunday mornings in Docklands are unusually peaceful.  London City airport doesn’t begin operating until midday, and the only other people on the water was another dragon boat team — there was plenty of room for our team and theirs to be far apart from each other, so far a while out there the only sound was the splashing of our paddles, and the shouts of our respective team helms.

It’s been a while since I updated about The Year of the Dragon.  Since I last wrote about it, I have raced with my team in the London Regatta — technically, we had two teams: our premier team, and our scratch team.  No prizes for guessing I was in the scratch team — but we also had some Olympic-level athletes in the premier team.  Overall, Thames Dragons came 5th place in all 3 race distances (100m, 200m and 500m) — and most importantly came in above the other London teams.

Now the BDA League is finished and the days are becoming shorter — we have already stopped training on Tuesday nights, since the London Regatta Centre requires us to be off the water at sunset, and sunset is rapidly approaching 6pm in London.  Sunday mornings have stopped requiring sun block, a hat, and a bandana to stop me from getting stinging sweat and sunblock in my eyes.  This Sunday morning, the air was cold when I left the house in a hoody and a jacket and I wondered if I was going to be able to stay warm enough out on the dock.

With the Henley Winter Series coming up,  Sundays have a focus on technique (especially for newer members, like myself) and distance paddling.  I was in the second row in the boat, which was unusual for me — but it’s a good place to be, since you take your timing from the front. It makes it much easier to see what the people at the front are doing if you are sat right behind them, and I could also look more closely to try and emulate their technique.  I don’t know if your position in the boat, other than the front row, is any kind of comment on your ability or just a matter of weight distribution.  Undoubtedly, there were better paddlers sat behind me — this is without question, the man directly behind me would occasionally tell me when my timing was slightly off, but also it wasn’t possible that out of a boatful of people I was even among the best.  That isn’t really important.

Sunday was just a beautiful morning to be out paddling; the sun was shining and the sky was clear.  When I’m on the water I enjoy the very short breaks we have, just for a minute or two to look around me and enjoy the surroundings — there’s no opportunity to look around when you paddle, even if your technique is perfect — you need to be watching the front of the boat.  Although, as a training technique we did try paddling with eyes shut occasionally.  It sounds crazy, but sometimes when you’re racing the water can be rough or there might be so much spray you won’t be able to see — so it’s important to be able to use other senses.  We’d start off with eyes open as normal, get into our rhythm and make sure everyone was in time: then it was eyes shut and keep paddling.  It’s surprising how quickly I’d lose timing: I’d be counting to myself and thinking I was still doing fine, then there’s be a whack as my paddle hit the paddle of the person behind me.

The distances are also a new experience.  In the London Regatta there was a 500m race, which was a distance some of us (myself included) had never covered before — and it was surprisingly difficult.  This Sunday we trained over distances of 1000 and 2000m.  The important thing is to focus on power and pace.

When I was at school, a long time ago now, there was a short time when I was a decent runner: but I was a sprinter.  I got pretty good, but not amazing, times for 100m, but preferred 200m. I performed well in 400m, and got a Gold award for my time, but I still preferred running 200m.  My trouble with 400m was I didn’t understand how to pace myself — I didn’t know how to start the race. With 100 and 200m, all I had to do was just run as fast as I could.  I wonder now if there is something in the power and pace techniques I am learning in dragon boating that could have been applied back then.

1000m was tough and 2000m was even harder — around me in the boat I could hear people breathing hard and panting. The Henley Winter Series involves continuous paddling for half an hour, with occasional short bursts of extra power, and for the newer paddlers like myself this is a new experience: with the short races, you are finished in under a minute.

In a campaign to be a better person, I’ve started going to the gym recently: and after only a week of activity, this week I could already feel the benefit an increase in strength and fitness has on my paddling.  With my adventures in Peru and Norway, I had reasons to train — a reason that I was missing after the challenges.  Now I am finding reasons once again: the year of the dragon isn’t just about the international race I want to build up to, it’s the fitness and training to be a better paddler, and overall being a better person.

4 days in Lisbon

Lisbon rooftops

Rua do Allecrim, LisboaI was back in work for 3 days after Canada before I was packing a bag, grabbing my passport and heading out the door before dawn to catch a flight to Lisbon for a Javascript conference.

Due to be generally disorganised, I left things too late to book the conference organisers’ suggested hotel and though it would be a work expense, I thought the other hotels I looked at were either too expensive or too far away. So I turned to Airbnb.  Airbnb worked out well when the girl and I stayed in Barcelona, so I found somewhere good value and close to the conference — even though it was only a room (plus extras), rather than a whole hotel.

It was a little surreal to find myself staying with my host, plus his Dad, younger sister and younger brother, but I quickly preferred it to staying in a hotel alone.  Santiago was apparently typical of Portuguese hospitality, he would always greet me warmly when I came home, offer me meals or tell me to help myself to anything I wanted from the fridge — he also took me sightseeing in the city on my last day in Lisbon.

The Portuguese are interesting people. It occurs to me that Portugal is to Spain like Canada is to the USA and New Zealand is to Australia: they are the underdog nation to a bigger and more influential neighbour — and consider themselves to the friendlier of the two.  Like Canada/USA, perhaps, Santiago told me that Portugal and Spain have “always been neighbours but never friends”, despite sharing a peaceful border.

For about a hundred years, Portugal was a world-leading nation: in the age of discovery Portugal was one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, as well as establishing a vast empire that included Brazil.  Now the Portuguese lament that they have gone from this to being “one of the PIGS“.  As with anywhere, speaking to the locals about history can be a minefield: while one person told me proudly about the military coup in the 1970s that overthrew the country’s Fascist dictator, another told me that he thought the dictator had been Portugal’s best ruler.

Aside from having warm and hospitable people, Lisbon is a beautiful and hilly city. Nearly all of its streets are still cobbled, and many are tiled like mosaics — though when it started to rain I quickly stopped wishing London had more hills and pretty tiled streets: if you’ve ever slipped on a wet bathroom floor try to imagine a whole city feeling like that.

LisbonI must have explored most of Lisbon with my host on Sunday: going to Belém for the famous pastel de Belém, climbing the steps to the top of the Belém tower, admiring the views from the Monument to the Discoveries, and witnessing the last part of a very surreal theatrical performance in Jerónimos Monastery.  I have tried and failed to find a video clip of the play, but all I can tell you is that it featured Knights Templar (recognisable from their garments displaying the cross of St George), an angel, and a hanged man.  The gathered crowd enjoyed it very much, and I might have understood more had I seen the beginning.  I asked Santiago about it, and he didn’t know what was going on either.

Later we walked to one of the highest points in the city and looked out over the red roofs and the sun beginning to set in the distance. Lisbon really is a beautiful city and quite romantic — for obvious reasons, Portugal does have a lot in common with Spain and other countries of southern Europe, including the old winding streets, but it also has a distinct character of its own.  Though I only saw a very small part of Lisbon, I look forward to returning sometime in the near future to see more.

(see more of my pictures from Lisbon here)