Staying afloat

The Police Boat Team will compete in the Dragon Boat Regatta next month.

  • Frank McClain explains how the team broke its outrigger canoe during a race. The boat capsized and tore in half.

  • Susan Wienand waits for her teammates before practice.

  • Gary Langhans steers the Philadelphia police dragon boat.

  • Time to rebuild: Aida Marcial (left) and Stacy Zieminski train with the Philadelphia Police Boat Team on the Schuylkill River. The team has been trying to raise about $25,000 for a new, 35-foot outrigger canoe since last September when its old one split in half during a race outside Atlantic City. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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.pp­ddragon­

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