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Dragon boats get a second act in Ridgefield

RIDGEFIELD — A couple of monster sightings are expected at Ridgefield’s Big Paddle Festival and Paddle For Life event next year.

Over the past year, several organizations in the city have contributed to the restoration and redesign of two 40-foot dragon boats. One of the boats was recently completed; the other one is expected to be finished before next year’s events.

The restoration will be the result of hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars in donations, Port of Ridgefield Commissioner Joe Melroy said.

“We didn’t realize we were going to get into a monster restoration project,” said Melroy, who is also part of the Ridgefield Lions Club.

Before their retirements, the boats glided along the Willamette River in the Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Races.

In 2018, Gail Alexander, one of the founders of Big Paddle, heard from a fellow kayaker that the Rose Festival was looking to sell the boats at a heavily discounted price. She worked with the city to obtain them, and the port built a storage area to keep them.

The Ridgefield Lions Club chipped in $1,000 for the restoration. Six Lions Club members, led in part by club member and City Councilor Rob Aichele, worked to restore them, which included fiberglass repairs, a significant amount of sanding and three coats of a marine-grade waterproof coating.

Bob’s Paint Land in Vancouver donated paint, and The Painter painting services in Ridgefield helped apply some of it. Restoration of the first boat included over 7 gallons of paint.

The Ridgefield Arts Association held numerous meetings to discuss the boats’ designs, crafting several possibilities. The Big Paddle Committee then approved the final design.

Designers hoped to maintain the ancient Chinese heritage of the boats while adding a Ridgefield flair. The color scheme of the finished boats will be similar to that of the Ridgefield High School and city logos.

“We wanted to keep it simple because we knew people would have to paint this,” said Patricia Thompson, president of the Arts Association.

Roughly 5 feet, 4 inches wide, the boats can hold 22 people. Teams typically include 20 paddlers, one drummer (also known as a caller) at the bow facing the paddlers and one steerer who stands at the rear.

The boats aren’t intended for regular competition; most race boats today are smaller. Rather, they’re meant to be a decorative attraction for Big Paddle. The festival next year is expected to include an official awakening ceremony and blessing.

“We always thought it would be really cool to have a dragon boat involved in the Big Paddle and get people out to the water,” Deputy City Manager Lee Knottnerus said.

Those who have been involved in the project are eager to see the boats on the water, but they seem equally fulfilled by the restoration process itself.

“It turned out to be a very good community project,” Melroy said. “It’s going to be a community project for a lot of years.”

Following decades in the big city, the dragon boats have a new life as a small-town attraction.

“How many small communities like this have dragon boats?” Thompson said.


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