Blind and Graying, Dragon Boat Rowers ‘Challenge the Impossible’

The Darkness Fighters are the solely crew in Hong Kong’s annual Dragon Festival composed of blind rowers.

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Members of the Darkness Fighters, Hong Kong’s solely dragon boat crew composed of visually impaired paddlers and their sighted coaches, prepare.CreditAngie Chan/The New York Times

HONG KONG — A blur of boldly patterned jerseys and fluttering banners of inexperienced, pink and yellow. The platinum of a ship’s wake towards the pewter of the sea. Oars paddling in hypnotic unity. All of it made brighter and extra vibrant by a obtrusive summer time solar.

This is Hong Kong’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, a centuries-old custom all through Asia that mixes sacred rituals with severe competitors.

Among the opponents final month have been the Darkness Fighters, Hong Kong’s solely dragon boat crew composed of visually impaired paddlers and their sighted coaches. Most of the rowers are properly previous retirement age.

“I’m really happy to be here today because I didn’t think I would be able to do things like this,” mentioned Tsang Jau Rung, 72, who started dropping her sight 16 years in the past and joined the Fighters this yr.

CreditAngie Chan/The New York Times

For Ms. Tsang, and the different blind paddlers, becoming a member of the crew has meant breaking with housebound routines that present a way of security, but additionally inflict a crushing loneliness. Rowing is a chance to socialize in addition to an opportunity to train.

The competition is alleged to commemorate the suicide of Qu Yuan, a third-century poet and patriot, and his neighborhood’s effort to rescue him from drowning. It is a celebration of teamwork in the face of isolation and desperation.

“It is a group effort,” mentioned Annie Wing Chee Lo, 60, who steadily misplaced her sight over the previous 10 years. “It requires our utmost focus and perseverance for us to do well.”

On race day, a whole bunch of groups from throughout the territory representing Hong Kong’s fashionable tribes — locals and expatriates, bankers and fishermen — meet to compete.

The Fighters’ boat is precisely the identical as the ones rowed by their sighted competitors — lengthy, picket and tottery, with a dragon figurehead at the prow, 22 rowers at work.

At the entrance of every boat is a big drum, beat to maintain the paddlers in time.

Even sighted rowers can not guarantee they received’t smack into the paddlers in entrance or behind them, however the Fighters should study precisely the place and when to put their oars solely by the sound of the drum.

Many of the crew’s members are collaborating in an organized sport for the first time of their lives, at an age when their friends have retired. There are practically 175,000 blind individuals in the metropolis, in response to the Hong Kong Federation of the Blind, and 65 p.c of them are over the age of 70.

Just attending to follow is an achievement. One paddler, Lau Fat, 65, should take a bus. Make three subway transfers. And navigate the streets in considered one of Asia’s busiest cities.

“It’s hardest for newly blind people,” mentioned Mr. Lau, who since dropping his sight 5 years in the past has additionally realized Kung Fu and the right way to play an erhu, a conventional Chinese stringed instrument. “They need to be convinced that they don’t need to be home alone but should come out and do things.”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

On race day, Mr. Lau mentioned he was nervous however discovered the regular beat of the boat’s drum calming.

“We are happy to participate,” he mentioned. “But of course we want to win.”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

“This is the Darkness Fighters’ mantra,” the crew shouted earlier than rigorously moving into the boat. “Challenge the impossible!”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

For the blind paddlers the race has its personal sensory delights: the thrum of the drum, the spray of the water, the crowd’s cheers.

By the finish of the race, they’re soaking wet, exhausted and beaming with satisfaction. They positioned fifth out of eight.

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

“We were all on point with our rhythms and didn’t mess one another up,” Mr. Lau mentioned. “That alone is a win for us.”

Nicola Longobardi and Kayne Rogers contributed images from Hong Kong.

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