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story.lead_photo.caption Jennifer Long, executive director of the Children’s Protection Center in Little Rock, holds original artwork by David McGhee of Little Rock that depicts the River Cities Dragon Boat Festival. The seventh annual event is scheduled for June 14 and 15 at Lake Willastein in Maumelle, and race day will begin at 9 a.m. June 15. Proceeds will go to the nonprofit Children’s Protection Center. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Darron Pitchford knows how to win a dragon-boat race, and he hopes to experience it again this year in Maumelle.

“Staying in sync is by far the most important,” Pitchford said.

The Maumelle firefighter is one of 20 paddlers on the team Ruh Row, which will compete in the seventh annual River Cities Dragon Boat Festival on June 14 and 15 at Lake Willastein. Race day will begin at 9 a.m. June 15.

“We won the first year; then we’ve come in second place every other year. We’ve lost by like one-thousandth of a second,” Pitchford said. He said this will be the team’s fifth year to compete, and the name is a nod to the cartoon Scooby Doo.

Ruh Row includes firefighters, police officers and friends, Pitchford said.

Proceeds from the festival will benefit the Children’s Protection Center in Little Rock, a nonprofit child-advocacy center.

Jennifer Long, executive director of the center, said registration is underway for the family-friendly festival.

“We still have room for more teams. It’s looking good — we have 36 teams, but we still have room,” she said. “I really believe we’ll start race day with 40.”

Registration is available at www.rivercitiesdragonboatfestival.com.

Dragon-boat racing has been around for centuries. Each team consists of 20 paddlers and a drummer. … People can sign up as individuals and be placed on a team to fill a spot, too, Long said.

Life vests, paddles and boats are provided. Teams race in authentic 46-foot-long Hong Kong-style dragon boats, according to the event’s website.

“A lot of local companies use this as an opportunity to network with other large companies,” Long said. “If companies have a health-and-wellness program, [the race is] great to support that kind of initiative. Other companies use the race as their company picnic; they cook out and tailgate and that sort of thing and invite other employees to cheer them on.

“If folks don’t want to be on a team, it’s free to park, free to come up and watch,” she said.

Practices will be held June 14 on Lake Willastein, “and we’ll have music, dancing and some fun things,” she said. Those events are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Kids activities will include a slip-and-slide, arts and crafts, and games, and the Central Arkansas Library System will have a booth. Food trucks will be on-site, and the night will culminate with a professional fireworks display.

Poolboy from Alice 107.7 in Little Rock will be the master of ceremonies June 14 and 15.

“Saturday (June 15) is race day,” Long said. “It’s fun to watch the real races when it gets down and dirty.

“We have heats all day, starting at 9 a.m.; then every team is guaranteed two races. The top 12 teams move on to the championship round and race one more time.”

Teams will tailgate, and contests are held for the best decorated booth or tent, the best T-shirts and more.

“There’s a drummer’s parade. … They dress up in outlandish costumes with a theme,” she said. Prizes will be awarded to the top three.

“We also have — it’s shocking — but we have the Golden Anchor Award, and that goes to the slowest time of the day, but people prize it,” she said. Last year, Pinnacle Point Hospital won it.

The Team Spirit award will be given to the team with the best attitude, and the top-four fundraising teams will race. The winning team among those four “gets to take the Dragon Cup home; it travels,” Long said. “The same team has had it since the beginning, and they’re not participating this year, so it’s definitely going to a new team.”

Longtime winners Team Won Fun Crew was a group of friends in central and northwest Arkansas, “and they are tired. They said they need a year off,” Long said.

That team also raised $5,000, which is great, but “crazy,” she said.

“We just ask each paddler to raise $100,” she said. “That’s $2,000 — some teams have 25 because they have alternates, so it’s $2,500.”

The goal of this year’s River Cities Dragon Boat Festival is to raise $150,000, Long said.

“Last year, we made about $160,000.

It was great; it was very successful. It funds everything involved in the work we do in helping children overcome abuse — forensic interviews, mental-health services, advocacy services … and specialized medical exams for children who have experienced physical and sexual abuse.”

The Children’s Protection Center saw 440 children in 2018, Long said, and the numbers are growing.

The Maumelle firefighters planned to hold a Fill the Boot drive last week at the Maumelle Kroger to raise money for the cause.

“We’re not as good as other teams [at fundraising]; we’re trying to get better at it,” Pitchford said.

Raising money to help children is one reason Pitchford said he participates.

“I like raising money for CPC. We’ve developed friendships with people who have run the event over the years. They’re nice enough to give the city a boat each year. … We like to compete, obviously.”

Pitchford, who is married and has two boys, 3 1/2 and 7 months, said he enjoys the atmosphere of the festival.

“It’s really fun; families come out and watch and hang out all day,” he said.

And it would be even more fun for him if Ruh Row is the top dog this year.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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