If you see a group of firemen almost anywhere, you can feel reassured that you are safe that if you need it they will risk their lives to come rescue you. The sole exception is if you are in a dragon boat start line in Hong Kong and they are in your heat. The fire services teams strike fear in the hearts of competitors all over the city, and the West Division Fire Services dragon boat team at the start line is a reason for anyone in other boats to start worrying. Their recent results speak for themselves: silver medal in the 2016 ICF Dragon Boat World Championships in Russia with a masters (40+) 10 man crew, gold medal in the same category in the 2016 IDBF Club Crew Championship in Italy and as we write this, they just earned a gold and bronze in the small boat competition at the 2017 CCB (Asia_ Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races in the 500m and 200m categories.
West Division is not a team worth knowing only for their results, but also because they have a unique partnership with the South Eagles dragon boat team which makes them both powerhouses in the most competitive dragon boating circuit in Hong Kong. The South Eagles are a common sight at the podium of races around the city. With a blistering start and powerful chug down the course, it is not uncommon to see them finish races a very comfortable boat length ahead the rest of the pack, even in a category of races where heats normally are decided by fractions of a second. In fact, South Eagles and the West Division form such a well-integrated alliance that it would be impossible to do talk about one of them without mentioning the other.
So What is Their Secret?
We have been fortunate to be invited by Clarence Lee, a Senior Officer in the Fire Protection Command to spend a race day with the South Eagles at Tsing Yi, and to learn about both teams.
South Eagles are led by Mr. Kwok Mei, and they embody the spirit of a leader who is both a formidable athlete at 69 years of age and widely held to be a true legend in the paddling community. A soft-spoken man with a ready smile, Mr. Kwok Mei literally leads from the front. He is a common sight at at point, stroking the team, or at the drum. At a time when many teams neglect the essential function of the drummer on the boat and drum only “for show,” he is the chief race strategist at that position. Off the water, the respect he inspires is obvious. Having built the South Eagles over of 30+ years, the paddlers of both teams trust his vision and leadership, and the entire community acknowledges him as one of the grand masters of the sport.
A Solid Alliance
South Eagles formally started in 1984 when they separated from Luen Yu Lung (United Fishery) dragon boat team and went on to become one of the most successful teams in Hong Kong. The West Division Fire Services team got a later start approximately 10 years ago, and established an alliance with South Eagles about 5 years ago when one of their members approached the Eagles for coaching. That initial partnership grew into an alliance where both teams now benefit from their friendship. West Division became an internationally competitive team, while South Eagles have build a deep bench of approximately 150 strong paddlers, singularly committed to winning races.
What is remarkable about this alliance is that this is not merely an arrangement where the teams have agreed to borrow paddlers as ringers when the need arises. One needs only to see the explosion of power in South Eagles starts and their timing down the course to understand that this is not a team clobbered together at the last minute. These paddlers obviously train together, they know what to do as their dragon roars down the course, and they execute their strategy as a single integrated team. Their sense of community is clear off the water as well paddlers barbecue and chat between races. One team, one vision.
Put together strong leadership and over 100 athletes vying for a seat and not wanting to let their friends down and the third ingredient reveals itself. These teams train hard. Really… really… hard. Each of South Eagles and West Division holds 3 training sessions a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then go race on the weekend. Some of the paddlers take advantage of the teams’ separate training schedule and actually attend different team sessions in the morning and then the evening of the same day. These are teams that want to win, made of paddlers who inspire and like to paddle with each other, so they train and train and train and when they are done training they train some more.
A day with South Eagles and the West Division firemen was truly a remarkable experience. The Eagles performance on the water, their solid alliance, Mr. Kwok Mei’s inspiring leadership and the history of both teams certainly made an impression. As if that were not enough, the picture above shows that they are already preparing the next generation of South Eagles to take flight. Maybe some of them also dream of being firefighters.