Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bleachers' Brew #276 Lure of the dragon boat

This appears in the Monday September 12, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.

Lure of the dragon boat
by rick olivares

Imagine this…

The entire team is locked in. Hands gripping their paddles ever so tightly. Not a word is said and the only sound is the waters of Thailand's Chao Phraya River gently lapping on the sides of the dragon boat. Everyone is taught. Tense. Like a coil ready to spring in a heartbeat. Only the team is to paddle in perfect synchronicity and in cadence to the beat of a drum.

Then the race barker’s shrill voice cuts the silence of the morning. “Good morning! Have you taken your breakfast?”

“What the?”



“Go! Go! Go!”

Then its bedlam -- a cacophony of cheers of the crowds along the riverbanks drum beats and commands as well as the occasional expletive. Some laugh. Breakfast! Go!

Welcome to the adventures of the Solid Aqua Fortis Dragon Boat Group, weekend warriors who have along the way found representing the Philippines in international competitions, a calling.

Several students from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts of the University of Santo Tomas formed the team in the early 1990s with the objective of being recognized as the school’s official dragonboat team. “We also wanted to promote dragon boat racing as a sport and to be recognized by the school,” recounted Mon de Jesus who was a track and field athlete for UST in the UAAP. “But we were turned down.”

“Parang maraming pwede mangyari sa tubig that the school cannot control so they could not sanction it,” added Third Gonzales, the team manager who also serves as the drummer for the team. “But it didn’t stop us from continuing with our team.”

At first, it was something that done just for fun. Then the rush from paddling and competing became an “addiction” as de Jesus describes it.

Dragon boat racing is one of the few sports where the result is entirely dependent on how everyone functions as a team. One cannot paddle with more force as it will not help the collective effort. The training is for everyone to be in synch. “You cannot row more powerfully than the others because it will hurt the timing. You cannot compensate for what the others lack.’

“Simply put, it’s a new form of bayanihan,” added Falcon. “That’s why we are called ‘Aqua Fortis’ – there is strength in the water. We draw strength from each other while competing.

As the original members graduated from school and got day jobs, a new generation followed suit with the membership was no longer exclusively from UST.

Then last year, Jovel Versoza, the team’s  founder, sent a text blast to many of the original members if they would like to reunite for the 22nd Swan Boat Races in Thailand. The response was incredible. “There was fire in our feet and our legs,” recounted Gonzales. “It was like being reborn again. Unfortunately, time wasn’t kind to many of us.”

During that long time away from competition, the originals busied themselves with their own lives and careers while some had put on weight. Some kept fit as they took up new sports like running, futsal, or triathlon. And because of the busy schedules, it was agreed that they should exercise or engage in some form of sports activity at least three days a week in order to get in shape. “When we got together, our biggest problem was our endurance,” said Mon. “We urged everyone to work on their endurance in their own different ways. We would jog in UP and find common time to train on Wednesdays. Then when we got fit, we began to work on our form and technique.”

Like any other sport that doesn’t receive any government of private sector backing, the members of Aqua Fortis had to pay their own airfare when competing abroad. “If it were for the special rates, we wouldn’t be able to compete,” joked Falcon. “We would ask the hosts of the tournament if they could spot for the accommodations. If there were any tours, that was a bonus.”

The members all chorus in unison that given the newfound interest in dragonboat racing, the motivation isn’t money. “We all wanted to get rich but we matured,” cracked Gonzales. “We had this unspoken word that if you put monetary value into winning then it cheapens the goal and the experience. We got into this for camaraderie and to have fun.”

Falcon related how her children would cry when they weren’t around. “There are certain sacrifices we have to make. We miss you but we have to do this,” she explained to her kids.

When the team came back home with a bronze medal in the mixed 500-meter race in the 2nd Open International Dragonboat Regatta in Busan, Korea, they were featured on television news programs and in the newspapers. The pride was evident in the children’s faces. In fact, de Jesus’ children brought their father’s medal to school to show it off to classmates and teachers. “That was a good feeling. And now my children want to get into dragon boat racing,” he related.

The SAG Dragon Boat Group had an opportunity for a second medal finish in the 2,000 meter race but the team which was doing very well, was rammed twice by other boats during a turn. Normally, the offending teams are docked some time for the infraction but because the rules were not enforced (tempers flared during the ramming incident), the race was cancelled. “We could have insisted about sticking to the rules but we felt that our relationship with the organizers and other countries was something worth more than a medal so we chose to forego any protest. This was all about sportsmanship,” summed up de Jesus.

“When we arrived in Busan, we looked at our competitors and they were big!” added Gonzales. “We didn’t look like the athletic sort. But after what we accomplished, they looked at us differently. A senator from Guam even said that we were the best.”

And to think, they’re just weekend warriors.


  1. thanks rick, you really see things from a different perspective...a very good write...tnx.

  2. Rick,
    Thanks for the nice write up, can you make a correction? It is Jovel Versoza who was the founder of the team back in '92.