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Steerers work with dragon boat teams to keep the boats on track

As this year's Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival arrives, the waterfront already has been full of entertainment and spectators.

Not to mention the members of the 63 teams competing in the dragon boat races.

Each team has between 17 and 21 participants. Also in each boat is a steerer, who stands in the back of the boat and helps keep it on track.

Dave Gustafson is one of the returning steerers for this year's festival. He is a member of the National Ski Patrol at Buena Vista Ski Area.

"Bemidji needs an event like this; this is something anyone can do," Gustafson said, adding that participants last year ranged in age and physical ability. "Some teams are out there to have fun, and some teams are out there to be very competitive."

The ski patrol members last year were trained by members of the Duluth Boat Club, spending several hours learning the correct techniques for paddling and steering.

Gustafson last year steered for several teams during the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival - and then volunteered to steer some more at last year's Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival.

"I enjoyed it enough that I went to Duluth and (steered)," he said.

The ski patrol got involved in the dragon boat festival since one of its members also is a member of the Bemidji Rotary Club, which hosts the annual festival. With between 40 and 50 members, Gustafson said the ski patrol had the numbers and its members are physically fit.

As steerers, the ski patrol members practice throughout the week with different teams and then steer the boats while the teams compete on Saturday. Gustafson said the teams that the steerers practice with before the race are not necessarily the same teams that the steerers work with on the day of the competition.

Also, some of the more professional, or polished, teams bring their own steerers, he said.

Steerers work to keep the boats on the course. In case of an imminent collision, Gustafson said the steerer will take charge of the boat and tell everyone to stop paddling, helping to avoid a potential crash.

"A lot of teams have never paddled before - or at least never paddled together," he said. "It's kind of a neat deal ... seeing them all come together."

The boats are steered similarly to how ships are steered with rudders, Gustafson explained.

"Just in a little more ancient form," he said.He said it can be tiring, especially if the weather is windy and there are whitecaps on the water.

Last year, Gustafson said, the day of the festival was windy and choppy. Keeping three boats lined up correctly for the races was tough.

But this year it should be easier, he said. Docks are planned to help get the boats lined up correctly.

Gustafson, who said he "grew up on the water," said working as steerers is fun for the ski patrol.

"It's nice to get together with one another," he said.

Shuttle available

A shuttle bus will be available on Saturday to help ease traffic and parking at the waterfront.

The free shuttle bus will operate from Bangsberg Hall on the Bemidji State University campus from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There will be pick-up and drop-off every 10 minutes.

Due to construction along Birchmont Drive, the Bangsberg parking lot is accessible from 10th Street to Lake Boulevard.

The Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce and Bemidji Rotary Club are sponsoring the shuttle.

If You Go

What: Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival

Where: Lake Bemidji waterfront

Today's events:

--10 a.m.: Vendor area opens

--Noon: Merchandise and Beer tents open

--5 p.m.: Cultural performances on Cultural Stage

--6:30 p.m.: Parade of teams

--7 p.m.: Opening ceremony

--7:30 p.m.: Bob & the Beachcombers on Coors Light Stage

Saturday's events:

--8 a.m.: Merchandise tent opens

--9 a.m.: First round of races

--10 a.m.: Vendor area opens, cultural performances, kids activities.

--11 a.m.: Beer tent opens

--1 p.m.: Second round of races

--4:36 p.m.: Final round of races

--5:15 p.m. (approximately): Awards ceremony

--6 p.m.: Kid Hollywood on Coors Light Stage