TACLOBAN CITY—The Tacloban Saltwater Dragon Boat Club (TSDBC)—Tacloban Salties, in short—was organized primarily to help locals cope with the lingering trauma and phobia of the sea, after experiencing the most destructive waves and storm surges to hit a populated land mass in recent years.
It is also an advocacy group that reminds everybody that climate change matters, and that our survival as a race depends on awareness before another disaster of Supertyphoon Yolanda’s magnitude strikes again.
The TSDBC is the very first dragon-boat team in Tacloban City and the province of Leyte. For over a year now, the Tacloban Salties have been making waves on the usually placid waters of Cancabato Bay.
Its members, over 60 of them, come from different walks of life—students, office workers, sports enthusiasts and entrepreneurs—bound by a common passion: To settle their personal issues with the sea that has claimed the lives of friends, families and loved ones, and destroyed whatever property they had before Yolanda.
“We introduced dragon boating as a way of bringing back their trust for the sea. Most of our members were victims of Yolanda, and they have been harboring trauma and anger toward the sea,” said Teody Muñoz, a self-confessed avid lover of the sea and cofounder of Tacloban Salties.
For Lyle Jay Arañas, a 14-year-old BMX enthusiast, his exposure to dragon boat has brought back his confidence in Tacloban’s Cancabato Bay. “Before I took up dragon boating, I feared the sea; thinking the water might suddenly rise again,” he said.
Arañas, who is an eighth grader and the youngest member of Tacloban Salties, lost 16 friends to Yolanda; many of them were neighbors in their community along the bay. “I slowly overcame my trauma, and I am now encouraging my classmates to join our team, as well,” he said. “I can now say that dragon boat, and all watersports, is safe.”
Tacloban Salties trainer Archie Sumalindao finds it challenging to introduce newbies to dragon boat, especially those who experienced trauma during the supertyphoon. He said the key is to gradually introduce them to the water in a relaxed and fun way.
“To make it comfortable, especially for those with trauma, we just let them enjoy what they are doing. We only try to absorb their issues and encourage them to express what they have in mind,” Sumalindao said.
“Newbies would usually ask kung hindi ba nakakatakot, because of what they experienced during Yolanda,” he said. They would just usually stay on the shallow part of the sea.
“Hindi namin sila pinipilit na sumakay, but we would ask them to try. They are briefed on what to do to make the boat ride safe, and all paddlers are required to wear a life vest,” he said.
For Shakkalissa Cañas Henderson, 35, and an overseas Filipino worker, paddling with the Tacloban Salties is her way of coping with depression. She lost both her parents and a younger sister to Yolanda.
“If I stay in the house, I will only get depressed,” she said. “I avoid looking at the pictures of my family, because it always makes me cry.”
Her doctor suggested she engage in sports and extreme activities to get her busy and divert her attention, prompting her to enroll in muay thai and dragon boat. “I gave up muay thai, because my body cannot handle two extremely taxing physical activities. I preferred dragon boat, because I enjoy it here. We work as a team and we bond like a family. This is really enjoyable.”
Henderson said she is not angry with what happened because it was a natural disaster, but said everybody must do his or her share to protect the environment to avoid a recurrence of another supertyphoon.
Tacloban’s exposure to dragon boat started in 2009, when then-Leyte Gov. Jericho L. Petilla included a dragon boat race as a sidelight in the hosting of Palarong Pambansa. Paddlers from the Philippine National Team participated regaling locals on the beauty of the water sports.
Dragon-boat clinics were held, participated mostly by students to encourage them into taking the sport. The interest was not sustained.
“Parang pinatikim lang ng paddle,” Muñoz said, since the visitors brought home with them the boats they used. “Ang mahal kasi ng boat.”
Before Yolanda hit the city, there was already a brewing new interest of promoting dragon boat after a local craftsman and businessman, Abraham Mario Wenceslao II, with funding assistance from a good friend, completed two 10-man boats. He had started working on these boats before Yolanda. After the typhoon, Wenceslao thought of using the boat to help people develop survival skills on water and overcome their fear of the sea.
In January last year the TSBDC was formally organized. The club has done dragon-boat clinics on different campuses, attracting more than 300 college students helping the young people overcome the trauma brought on by Yolanda’s storm surge.
“The club aims to foster passion and interest in rowing through education and training, promote water safety, and advocate environmental and ecological awareness among its members and in the community,” the club’s page in social media said.
While the team is relatively young compared to other dragon-boat teams in the country, it is already displaying much promise.
Last year the group was able to participate in different competitions, including the 2016 Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Palawan where it took home a silver and two bronze medals.
Muñoz said they reached the semifinals in all events they participated in and came home ninth overall out of 36 teams from nine countries. Tacloban Salties target to surpass this achievement when they compete in the Cebu Dragon Boat Fiesta 2017 from April 28 to 30.
Individually, many of their members are already getting noticed for their, skills like in the case of Arañas, who is being offered by a veteran team in international competitions to join their pool, an offer the kid would like to entertain. This is also evident by the mature leadership he shows, especially to the new members of the organization.
The Tacloban Salties stand out among other local sports club for their consistent advocacy for climate-change awareness in all their races. “We paddle for climate-change awareness,” said Sumalindao of their club’s motto. “We are not confrontational in our advocacy; we do not target individuals. We just display our banners for the people to know what we stand for.”
He said, from the start, it was already clear to the members what the group advocates. “Mas maganda ang may advocacy, kasi hindi lang katawan ang binuhay mo kundi ang puso.”
Muñoz believes their advocacy is what binds the group deeper into their commitment to the team, especially that the issue on climate change is near to the hearts of the Taclobanons.
“Tayo ang biktima ng Yolanda. Tayo ang biktima ng grabeng kalamidad dala ng climate change. Our battle cry is we paddle, so people will be aware to protect the environment. Let’s get out and break free from the use of fossil fuel,” Muñoz said.
The club takes the issue seriously. During their daily practice, the group members would pick up garbage, mostly plastics, that they would find on the bay. They also do coastal cleanups to celebrate some milestones.
If dragons are considered guardians of treasures in some mythical literature, Sumalindao said Tacloban Salties can be considered as dragons of the Cancabato Bay.
“We consider the Cancabato Bay as a treasure. We like to think that we are the guardians of the Cancabato Bay,” he said. “We try to save this. We dream that someday there will be no more illegal fishing here and this place will be declared as a marine sanctuary. It will take years before this happens, but hopefully, it will come true.”