Hear them roar

Published 6:14 pm Tuesday, July 31, 2007

By By ERIKA PICKLES / Niles Daily Star
NILES – This year's Dragon Boat Races will feature two very special boats named Wu-Wen-Ta and Tourism. At first glimpse, the names may seem a little odd, but the story behind the two is everything but.
The first two Taiwan dragon boats in North America have been restored by volunteers from Niles and will participate in the annual races, being held this Saturday, Aug. 4 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the Saint Joseph River.
The two boats were handcrafted out of jasper wood and hand painted by dragon boat makers in Taipei, Taiwan. They were gifts to Mississippi River Adventures, Inc. (MiRA), used to initiate the first annual international dragon boat races in North America in 1988, held at Navy Pier in Chicago.
However, as time passed, the boats were used less and less and began losing a lot of their original beauty.
Scott Crouch, a Niles City Firefighter who has supervised the restoration for the past three years, said the dragon boats had deteriorated nearly beyond repair.
"It looked like they had just gotten out of World War II," he explained. "When I first saw them, they were being stored in an old mushroom factory on Third Street. Those really aren't ideal for storing boats because they are damp. Plus there were holes in the roof and with the weather changes, the wood and everything else just deteriorated. There were trees growing in them and sand and dirt all over the bottom."
Crouch found out about the boats after talking with Gill Brazo.
"In the past, we have rented Dragon Boats, but Brazo came to me one day and said he had two that needed to be fixed up and no one wanted to touch them," Crouch continued. "So, I went and looked at them and just couldn't let them get destroyed. I didn't know much about them or about restoring them, so I spent a lot of time researching online, asking people and calling different boat places. Little by little we started working on them."
And, with the help of many volunteers around Niles, the boats have been restored and are ready to hit the water.
"So many people have come together to help make this possible. That's one great quality about this community. If something needs done, people will come together to make it happen. I didn't even really have to ask much of the people. I basically said 'this is what I need' and they got it to me," Crouch said.
Work on the boats included replacing all of the rotted wood, repainting and refiberglassing the body. Crouch also added a very unique feature, which enables the dragons to blow smoke and fire out of their mouths. A CD and sound system were also made to make dragon sounds.
Sue Smith, of the MiRA who owned the boats, told Crouch she doesn't think any other dragon boat in the world blows smoke or fire.
When asked how he came up with the idea, Crouch was quick to answer.
"Fire breathing dragons, I'm a fireman, it just kind of went together," he said.
The two dragon boats will race simultaneously, powered by crews of up to 18 rotating through the boats in races. Practices will be held Friday night, with a special ceremony being held, called Waking of the Dragon.
"That will be really neat to see," Crouch said.
Trained steersmen from Wisconsin and Illinois will steer each of the boats from the back of the boat as 18 paddlers provide the power, stroking to the beat of the drummer in the bow.
The American Dragon Boat Association, the first internationally recognized governing body for dragon boat racing in the USA, was born as a result of local dragon boat festivals held using these two boats in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois from 1987-1993.
In return for his innovation to save the boats, Crouch is being flown to Sydney, Australia by Mississippi River Adventures, Inc. to participate as a volunteer for the World Championship Dragon Boat Races Sept. 18-23.
"This really wouldn't have been possible without the help of the volunteers. Hundreds of hours were spent trying to get these done. Sue (Smith) was so thrilled when I called and told her about this. She said something like this would have never been done in Chicago. She said this is a very special community, especially to give back like that. But that's just a quality that Niles has. People come to you with open arms, ready to help," Crouch added.
Some of the volunteers Crouch wishes to thank include Ridge Auto Parts, Wal-Mart, Clark's Service, Dave Mongen, Heather Ramsey, The Junior Optimist Club, Petes Marathon, Schrader Fabricating, Gill Brazo, the Niles Fire Department, Don Wise and Bill McAllister.
For more information on the Dragon Boat races or to find out how you can get involved, visit www.nilesriverfest.net.