‘Dragon’ out the dollars

Special to the Coastal Point • Belinda M. Bahder: Dragon boat paddlers make their way through the Lewes Canal.Special to the Coastal Point • Belinda M. Bahder: Dragon boat paddlers make their way through the Lewes Canal.Nearly two dozen teams hit the water last Sunday for the inaugural Lewes Dragon Boat Festival, held at Lewes Canalfront Park.

The event was a fundraiser for Sussex Academy, a public charter school in Georgetown. The school recently moved to a new location and established the event to help raise money for building improvements — an area in which they receive no state funding.

“Sussex Academy sounds like a private school with a costly tuition, but the name is deceiving,” campaign chairman Joe Schell explained. “This is a public charter school that has no tuition.”

Schell went on to clarify that, while they had financial goals in mind in creating the fundraiser, their main goal was to raise awareness of the school choice offered by Sussex Academy. Formerly middle-school only, the school is now offering another option for high school students in the area, starting off with ninth grade this year and expanding to include 10th grade next year, and 11th and 12th grades by 2015 and 2016, respectively.

“We were anxious to break even, or do better,” he noted. “We did significantly better, but our main purpose was to educate and make people aware of what Sussex Academy is.”

The idea to hold a dragon boat raise came from Krista Griffin, who serves as co-chair for the event. Once a member of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, Griffin has been to a number of dragon-boat festivals along the East Coast.

“It just seemed like the perfect thing to bring to Lewes for a community event,” she said, in describing how the idea came to fruition. “I’m surprised someone hasn’t done it before.”

The 46-foot-long boats used in the races last weekend held 20 rowers, a drummer and a professional steersman provided by Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing, based in Knoxville, Tenn. The company was hired to help execute the event.

“There’s a number of different ways you can do dragon-boat racing” Griffin explained of her decision to go with Dynamic. “This is specifically a company geared toward having community events that raise money for charity.”

According to Griffin, the company is also familiar with training participants who are new to the sport, which was common among the mostly business-based and -sponsored teams.

“They’re geared toward people that have never paddled before. I’d say [for] 95-plus percent of the people there, this was their first time in a dragon boat.”

After three rounds of racing, 12 of the 21 teams advanced to the finals, but not before a steersman auction raised an additional $13,000 for the school. The highest bidder got to choose their steersman for the final round.

Striper Bites, a Lewes-based bistro, ended up taking home the big prize, and Schell Brothers barely edged out the Pilot’s Association by 0.1 second, to be named runner-up.

Not only was the inaugural race a huge success for the school, but it was something that the participants involved and the town of Lewes will not soon forget.

“That was one of the top 10 coolest things I’ve ever done,” said Sussex Academy 7th grade math teacher Jaime Bahder after the race. “The whole experience was awesome. I can’t wait to race again next year.”

The campaign committee is already discussing new ideas for next year and hopes to involve more teams and more sponsors.