The 2016 Walgreens Mercer County Dragon Boat Festival returns for its 10th year on Saturday, September 17, at Mercer County Park. This fall classic is a magnet for East Coast teams looking to take part in high-quality racing amid nature’s beautiful backdrop, and for spectators who want to watch the vibrant, colorful show and bask in the friendly vibes and good times typical of the close-knit East Coast dragon boat community

For those of you who may not know, dragon boat racing is an ancient Chinese sport in which teams paddle long, speedy boats made to look like dragons. Teams of up to 20 rowers race for the finish line, and the teamwork that requires is at the heart of the appeal.

Dragon boat is the ultimate team sport, welcoming all paddlers regardless of age or fitness level. Whether you want to get fit, exercise your competitive streak, or meet new people and learn some new skills, you’re in the right place.

This year, 70 teams will compete in both competitive and recreational races, the ultimate goal being to help fight cancer. The festival is a growing fundraiser benefitting the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

And “growing” is putting it mildly. In its first year, the festival drew about 25 crews. Word of mouth about the races at Mercer County Park spread enough to draw a few more crews every year. Three years ago, there were 40 crews ‒‒ and suddenly there are 70. Crews from the New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia region return annually to create a vibrant athletes’ village, setting up team tents and elaborate picnics in the shady woods neighboring festival grounds.

Aaron Soroka, chief operating officer of GWN Events, which puts on the festival, says crews and spectators are drawn more and more to the sheer scale and pageantry of the races, but also by the display of pure teamwork it takes for 20 people to row in unison for the finish line.

What’s important to know is that winning a dragon boat race usually isn’t about brute strength.

“The best teams aren’t necessarily the ones with the strongest players,” Soroka says. “They’re the ones that work together best. It’s the synchronicity.”

This dynamic makes dragon boat racing ideal for corporate team building.

“You take 20 employees and put them in a boat, they have to work together,” he says. “That translates well back into the business.”

To enter a team, fees range from $895 to $1,045, but to come watch is free and open to everyone. Slots for racers are almost full, but space might still be open for paddlers who want to join an existing team.

Whether you experience this year’s dragon boat festival from the water or from the land, you’re sure to have a blast. It is, Soroka says, “good clean family fun.”

And all for an excellent cause.

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