The reasons for the enduring popularity of the Dad Vail Regatta should be self-evident to anyone who has ever ventured to the banks of the Schuylkill River on the second weekend of May. With sleek shells slicing through the current on the strength of synchronized oarsmen in their colorful singlets, it’s a spectacular sight to behold.
On the other hand, the Philadelphia Police Boat Team looks nothing like that. Instead, think of the closing credits to the old Hawaii 5-0. Not the opening sequence with a giant wave crashing toward shore, but the footage at the end depicting a crew of bare-chested islanders relentlessly paddling an outrigger canoe over choppy whitecaps.
The members of the 14-year-old Police Boat Team do that. And they also pilot an equally cumbersome-looking vessel known as a dragon boat, a type of longboat with origins in ancient China. On June 7, the team will compete along dozens of other clubs on the very same waters traversed last weekend by the collegiate rowing crews.
Although the annual Independence Dragon Boat Regatta probably won’t draw tens of thousands of spectators like Dad Vail did, it promises to be an exciting, family-friendly spectacle nonetheless.
“It’s like a large canoe that seats twenty people, ten on each side,” said Frank McClain, the Police Boat Team president. “In the front of the boat, a drummer sits and in the back there’s a steerer who stands up with a long oar like a gondola. He steers the boat, and the drummer’s job is to keep everybody in cadence.”
For each race, the 30-foot boats usually line up six-abreast. They cover the 500-meter distance in about two frenzied minutes during which paddlers take about 160 strokes.
“It’s a sprint that you feel like dying at the end,” said McClain, 43, a 24-year police veteran assigned to Central Detectives.
Though unfamiliar to many, the dragon boat format has a distinguished and growing history in Philadelphia. The police team, which is open to folks in all branches of law enforcement and also includes active military, started in 2001 when the city was scheduled to host a world-class regatta. Irishman and avid rowing enthusiast John Timoney was police commissioner at the time.
“He was asked to put a team together for that. Of course, it was the only year he was part of the team,” McClain said.
Timony left Philadelphia the following January. McClain joined the team in 2002 and has been part of it ever since. This year will be an important one for the team on multiple levels. Members have been trying to raise about $25,000 for a new, 35-foot outrigger canoe since last September when their old one split in half during a race outside Atlantic City.
About three months later, their 52-year-old coach, Detective Pedro “Pete” Vargas, passed away following a heart attack at his home. Vargas’ son, Albertico “Tico” Vargas, 26, is an eight-year U.S. Coast Guard veteran. He and his teammates will be training and competing in his father’s memory.
“My father told me about [the sport]. I tried it once and stuck with it,” Tico Vargas said. “It’s a great team of people. My dad and I have been doing the sport, and I still want to continue the tradition in my family.”
Many team members compete in both boats, although the outrigger presents a very contrasting set of demands on them. The six-man crew lines up single-file and employs an alternating pattern of paddle strokes to keep the forward momentum going. The hulls are about 35 feet long and have a portside attachment known in Pacific islander parlance as an “ama” that serves as a lateral support.
Perhaps most distinctively, the races are not straight sprints. Instead, they cover 10 miles or more over circuit courses, often over the open sea. Racing is part of traditional Polynesian culture and remains popular in places like Hawaii and New Zealand.
Over the years, members of the Philadelphia police team have traveled to Canada, Ireland, Germany and even China to compete against other law enforcement clubs from around the globe. Most events have men’s, women’s and mixed-gender races. In 2013, the Philly women took gold in the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast. They hope to defend their title next year in Fairfax, Va.
“There are a lot of all-female boats out there, but the reason we took gold is because of the way we train, and that’s because of Pete and Frank,” said Aida Marcial, a former sergeant in the Camden County prosecutor’s office who founded her own international investigations firm.
On the Philly team, women sit side-by-side with men pulling together for the same cause.
“When we’re left to compete against women, we maintain that edge,” Marcial said. “Being law enforcement officers, we’re used to depending on each other on the ground. And it’s that camaraderie that goes a long way.” ••
For more information about the Philadelphia Police Boat Team, visit www.ppddragonboat.org.