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Blind and Graying, Dragon Boat Paddlers ‘Challenge the Impossible’

Hong Kong dispatch

The Darkness Fighters are the only visually impaired team in an annual Hong Kong festival that blends ritual and rivalry.

Training by members of the Darkness Fighters, Hong Kong’s only dragon boat team composed of visually impaired paddlers and their sighted coaches.CreditAngie Chan/The New York Times

HONG KONG — A blur of boldly patterned jerseys and fluttering banners of green, pink and yellow. The platinum of a boat’s wake against the pewter of the sea. Oars paddling in hypnotic unity. All of it made brighter and more vibrant by a glaring summer sun.

This is Hong Kong’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, a centuries-old tradition throughout Asia that combines sacred rituals with serious competition.

Among the competitors last month were the Darkness Fighters, Hong Kong’s only dragon boat team composed of visually impaired paddlers and their sighted coaches. Most of them are well past retirement age.

“I’m really happy to be here today because I didn’t think I would be able to do things like this,” said Tsang Jau Rung, 72, who began losing her sight 16 years ago and joined the Fighters this year.

CreditAngie Chan/The New York Times

For Ms. Tsang, and the other blind paddlers, joining the team has meant breaking with housebound routines that provide a sense of safety, but also inflict a crushing loneliness. Competing is an opportunity to socialize as well as a chance to exercise.

The festival is said to commemorate the suicide of Qu Yuan, a third-century poet and patriot, and his community’s effort to rescue him from drowning. It is a celebration of teamwork in the face of isolation and desperation.

“It is a group effort,” said Annie Wing Chee Lo, 60, who steadily lost her sight over the past 10 years. “It requires our utmost focus and perseverance for us to do well.”

On race day, hundreds of teams from across the territory representing Hong Kong’s modern tribes — locals and expatriates, bankers and fishermen — meet to compete.

The Fighters’ boat is exactly the same as the ones rowed by their sighted competition — long, wooden and tottery, with a dragon figurehead at the prow, 22 paddlers at work.

At the front of each boat is a large drum, beat to keep members of the team in time.

Even those who can see cannot ensure they won’t smack into the paddlers in front or behind them, but the Fighters must learn exactly where and when to place their oars solely by the sound of the drum.

Many of the team’s members are participating in an organized sport for the first time in their lives, at an age when their peers have retired. There are nearly 175,000 blind people in the city, according to the Hong Kong Federation of the Blind, and 65 percent of them are over the age of 70.

Just getting to practice is an achievement. One paddler, Lau Fat, 65, must take a bus. Make three subway transfers. And navigate the streets in one of Asia’s busiest cities.

“It’s hardest for newly blind people,” said Mr. Lau, who since losing his sight five years ago has also learned Kung Fu and how to play an erhu, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. “They need to be convinced that they don’t need to be home alone but should come out and do things.”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

On race day, Mr. Lau said he was nervous but found the steady beat of the boat’s drum calming.

“We are happy to participate,” he said. “But of course we want to win.”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

“This is the Darkness Fighters’ mantra,” the team shouted before carefully getting into the boat. “Challenge the impossible!”

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

For the blind paddlers the race has its own sensory delights: the thrum of the drum, the spray of the water, the crowd’s cheers.

By the end of the race, they are sopping wet, exhausted and beaming with pride. They placed fifth out of eight teams.

CreditNicola Longobardi for The New York Times

“We were all on point with our rhythms and didn’t mess one another up,” Mr. Lau said. “That alone is a win for us.”

Nicola Longobardi and Kayne Rogers contributed photography from Hong Kong.

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