I referee at a dragon boat festival which involves forty-foot canoes with one-hundred or more twenty-five person teams. It’s a blast! We do it to raise funds for some health-care charities.
Preparations take a year. During practices in the final two weeks before the race I get to know as many teams as possible, so that I will learn what to expect from each team, and so that the crews will learn what I expect of them. This is also the time for teams to offer bribes. (My policy is to accept all bribes without prejudice. Thus I end up with a lot of team jerseys, caps and such, while the starter who is a hungry young university student accepts bribes of food and beer.)
Come race day, it is a bit like putting on a large play. I don’t worry about the festivities, but I do have to ensure that the races are run on time (four boats per heat, a heat every ten minutes, all day long). This takes about eighty people, but matters are pretty well delegated. I run the radio checks with the lifeguard boat, starters, timers, marshals and TV crew, and at the same time run the final task checks. Then the fun starts. A jet boat picks me up and takes me for a screamer out into the lake, while I conduct the final on-water radio check.
Once everything is working smoothly, the marshals send off the first heat from the docks. I line them up above the start line. This can sometimes be quite a challenge, especially if there is a cross wind. Most crews are able to line up their boats, but quite a few need me to give them directions by megaphone. It’s like calling a slow-motion square dance for forty foot dragons. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, for if I run races late, the whole show will run late into the evening.
Once the boats are lined up, I transfer control of the race to the starter, who sets up for the day on a raft. He calls the boats up to the line and micro adjusts them, sometimes with my assistance. He starts them, and I follow them closely watching for potential problems, such as boats going out of their lanes and crashing. If all goes well, all the boats in the heat have a clean race. If not, I have to assign penalties and file penalty reports with the chief official.
The key is to spot which boat is about to have difficulty, jet up to them, and give them simple, effective directions to help get them out of trouble before it is too late. Once I even had to hop out of the jet boat onto the steering platform of a dragon boat and heave it about before it rammed into the shore. This all goes on before a crowd of about twenty-thousand people, and they are very loud. Fortunately, unlike most spectator sports, they cheer me rather than boo me. Once I stopped a crew which was flat spinning toward a seawall. The crowd went wild that time, and started doing a wave.
Halfway through the day I have a dash to the washroom, and then get back on the job. By the end of the day, everyone is pretty beat, so we take a few minutes for rest before running the finals. I run a radio check before the final heats, and the starter ensures that the starts are absolutely bang on. One of the most enjoyable things about the finals is that after each heat, I can pass on unofficial times from the radio over to the expectant crews, and for the finals in each division, I get to be the first to congratulate the teams.
After the races I change into something warm, hit the festival food tents (pad thai for me!), and attend the grand parade (lots of costumes) and awards ceremonies. Then everyone parties into the wee hours, with both live bands and DJs. All of the crews know me by then, some of them have worked with me during training over the last few years, and it’s not that big of a community in the first place, so for me the evening is a continuous progression of hugging, hand shaking, and dancing on the grass. Talk about good vibes!
At the end of the evening, those of us who put the whole thing together sit about a table in the beer tent and chat about what went on during the day, while we wait for a tabulation of the deposits made on the bank run. Usually we pull in about a quarter of a million during the day, so there are a lot of similes when the count comes in. Knowing that we gave the community a terrific day of racing, one heck of a party, and tidy pile of cash to its health care services charities brings on deep feelings of satisfaction. All in all, it’s probably about as fulfilling a day as a referee can hope for.