Dragon boats invade Nathan Benderson Park

Near the top of a page on its website, GWN Dragon Boat declares, in large type: We take dragon boating seriously.

The company takes the Sarasota-Manatee counties market seriously, too.

The Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival marks the initial foray into the area by one of the largest dragon boat competition companies in North America.

“Benderson is arguably the best rowing/paddle-sport facility in North America right now, if not the world,” GWN Chief Executive Officer Aaron Soroka said. “Our paddlers, who expect the quality of racing we provide at all events, have pushed for us to bring an event to Benderson.”

Dragon boat races have been held annually at Nathan Benderson Park the past few years. The facility offers beginner and intermediate dragon boat classes and practice time throughout the year. Another operator has conducted dragon boat races on the Manatee River the past three years.

GWN owns and operates nearly three dozen dragon boat races/festivals annually across North America, including the Major League Dragon Boat Series. That series, which attracts international fields, culminates each year with the series championship in Orlando – most recently on Turkey Lake at Bill Frederick Park – in October. The series championship, which routinely draw fields of 70 boats, is the largest dragon boat competition in the country, according to Soroka. In addition, multiple dragon boat teams that compete in the MLDB Series call the state of Florida home, so, GWN is familiar with the Florida market.

By putting a first-year event in the MLDB series and starting the 10-event series schedule at Benderson, Soroka and GWN are betting this event will succeed.

“For us, this is about building long-term relationships with the community and Benderson,” Soroka said. “This is our 25th year in Toronto and 11th year in Orlando. It is not like the world (rowing) championships where we come in once and then leave. Our goal is to be here for the next 15 to 20 years.

“Our goal is 30 teams this year,” Soroka said. “Next year will tell us if we’re successful or not. If the national and international teams come back and we can engage the local teams to participate, we should have 40 or more teams next year.”

The festival is scheduled to run from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and racing is scheduled in two divisions: sports and community.

The current festival schedule calls for 200- and 500-meter races in both divisions as well as a 2-kilometer pursuit race for elite teams. The shorter race distances and the use of the facility’s usual finish line make watching racing much easier for fans.

Success doesn’t just depend on the competition on the water for GWN events, which is why a great deal of the focus in on dry land.

Benderson charges $5 for parking, but there is no admission charge for spectators. Once inside the gates, spectators will find a stage near the finish line that will feature Asian artistic and musical performances, including lion dances, throughout the day. A health and wellness village and a marketplace will feature a cross section of providers and vendors. Thirsty fans can sample the beer garden, and food trucks will be on hand for the hungry. Children can pass the time in an interactive Kids Zone or touch an actual dragon head like the ones found on the boats.

“We try to create events that are more than just racing,” Soroka said. “We want a local family that is looking for something to do together on a Saturday to know we offer a full-day, family friendly experience. That is another layer to our events that, frankly, other festivals may not put the same importance on. And this year is all about the first experience for people and about our building a connection with the community.”

Details: Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival, 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota. Admission is free, parking is $5. www.gwndragonboat.com/sarasota