A Tragedy in Boracay

Tragedy struck in Boracay last September when a dragonboat carrying 22 paddlers capsized in the open seas. Eight of the 22-man crew of the Boracay Dragon Force perished, while the rest were picked up by rescue elements or were able to swim to shore. With the SEA Games forthcoming at that time, efforts to understand what happened and make appropriate corrective measures were set aside.

Still, questions arose after the incident. What happened? Why did they have to drown? The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) announced that an investigation would be conducted, but the preparations for the incoming SEA Games overshadowed the tragic event. The Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), which had direct responsibility over the National Sports Associations (NSAs), was also busy with the SEA Games preparations. It issued no official statement whatsoever in regard the tragedy. That said, I wish to resurface the matter now, so that it doesn’t get swept under the rug. It will be the height of insensitivity if such a tragedy is covered up, buried in the euphoria brought by the country’s successful SEA Games campaign.

It was reported that the crew was practicing for an incoming competition, but was unfortunately hit by strong waves that forced the boat to capsize. Sadly, none of the crew had brought life-vests, a violation that had been the practice years before. This was never corrected throughout the years. No prior coordination was made with local Coastguard authorities. The paddlers had reportedly ventured out under relatively calm seas, unaware that the seas would later turn rough.

This is not to cast aspersions on the crew, for we know that paddlers will always want to go out and practice. But water safety protocols have been created precisely to ensure that untoward incidents are avoided, particularly if paddling in an uncontrolled environment such as the open seas. And officials and higher authorities have the responsibility to ensure that these are followed. Did the Philippine Canoe Kayak Dragonboat Federation (PCKDF) provide the team strict guidance on water safety? If so, were they being followed? Were there periodic audits done, or reviewers and reminders issued by the PCKDF? Or were these violations simply tolerated?

The tragedy highlights the need to enforce strict safety protocols. (PhilStar)

This is not the first time that PCKDF’s lackadaisical control has resulted in a tragic mishap since they took over control of dragon boating in the country. In 2016, a boat capsized in Manila Bay. The paddlers were rescued and brought to shore. It was only upon reaching the shore that they realized they were missing 1 member. That the 21 other members failed to call for the conduct of an immediate accounting after the boat capsized is a glaring manifestation of the inadequate training on safety procedures given by the PCKDF. A capsized boat scenario is just one of the situations that need to be stressed in training, and reviewed periodically, and further audited by the proper authorities. One wonders if a proper investigation was made after this incident.

The tragic death of the 8 paddlers in Boracay, as well as the previous incident in Manila Bay, not only present the fatal effects of failing to ensure that safety standards are strictly maintained. This also brings to the fore the lack of control and accountability within the dragonboat community.

In the Philippine Military Academy recently, 2 swimming instructors were immediately sacked after an unfortunate drowning of a cadet. Previous to that, no less than the PMA Superintendent and the Commandant of Cadets resigned after a gruesome hazing incident, even if they were miles removed and never involved in the incident. That’s command responsibility. That’s accountability. Sadly, the PCKDF doesn’t have that.

Ultimately, this drowning tragedy highlights one of the more serious effects of the transfer of ownership of dragonboating from its original organization, the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation (PDBF), to the PCKDF.

The lack of control and accountability stemmed from the dubious move of former POC President Peping Cojuangco to transfer the NSA status for dragon boating from the PDBF to the PCKF. On the pretext of a ‘directive’ from the IOC, control over dragonboating was turned over to the PCKF. It will be stressed that NO OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD RECEIVED SUCH A DIRECTIVE FROM THE IOC, and this will be attested by the 80-plus countries that remain as strong and active members of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). The PCKF would later change its name and by-laws to Philippine Canoe Kayak Dragonboat Federation (PCKDF) to suit their need. And the POC would turn a blind eye to this sad anomaly. (Please read: The Travails of Philippine Dragon Boating.)

But the general rules, guidelines and protocols on dragonboating were all formulated and developed by the IDBF, before most of these were copied and used by the Intl Canoe Federation (ICF), however loosely. The ICF had no prior interest, nor experience, in dragonboating until 2008, when they saw the great development and public interest in the sport. Consequently, the PDBF – created in 2003 after the IDBF was organized – has far more experience and knowledge in the sport in general, particularly in the need for water safety protocols. The PCKF was only created in 2005; and specifically, for canoeing and kayaking only. If dragonboat continues to be hostaged by the PCKDF, proper dragon boating standards and protocols will continue to be missed, and this will not be the last time that accidents in dragonboat such as this will happen. These never happened during PDBF’s watch.

If we truly wish to improve dragonboating standards, create a solid long-term development plan, and revive the tradition of excellence and pride in the sport here in the Philippines, there is a need for 1 strong, FOCUSED and ACCOUNTABLE organization that can provide complete control and strict guidance to all dragonboat clubs in the country. Sadly, the PCKDF has been remiss in this duty. And these tragedies are just symptoms we see in the sport’s sorry state today.

During the recent SEA Games, our PCKDF paddlers, heralded as world champions in the ICF-run ‘World Championships’, could only produce 2 measly bronze medals. Despite being the host country, the Philipine paddlers under the PCKDF could not hold their own against their IDBF-seasoned counterparts from Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, etc. It is clear that for so long as dragonboating is left to the PCKDF, our paddlers will not see any real competition from which they can learn and develop from.

The Philippines’ Dragonboat scorecard reads as follows. Clearly, the PCKDF has not been doing a good job of handling the reins of Dragonboating properly.

During the last SEA Games, the PCKDF had homecourt advantage, with the home crowd cheering them on. They had familiarity of the ‘ICF-standard’ boats; they had familiarity of the waters, they even dictated which events were to be played. They supposedly had no excuse whatsoever to lose the gold medals they promised to harvest. But despite all that, our paddlers faltered. This time, the culprit was a ‘mysterious wind’ that allegedly hampered the Philippine lanes! In previous SEA Games and Asian Games competitions, excuses given ranged from a false start, to lack of funds for a second oarsman, to non-ICF standard boats, etc. This time, it was a mystery wind! What alibi will they think of next?

Winning the overall championship in the recent SEA Games solidly demonstrates that Filipino athletes are worth celebrating. However, the unfortunate deaths of these 8 paddlers in Boracay is an abomination that must not be allowed to rest. Unless concrete actions are taken to correct such mistakes, we will surely be haunted by more of the same.

We may have won as one in the eyes of our South East Asian neighbors, but we lose in the long haul if we continue to cast a blind eye on the deep flaws that continue to plague Philippine Sports. It is precisely this misuse of authority that compeled the best of our sportsmen, our thinkers, our leaders to exercise their talents away from our native shores. It is the same abuse of authority that caused the clear demise of Philippine Sports during the past decade. Let us not allow this same tragedy to ever happen again. Let not the same Mafia rule negate the modest inroads we have seen during the recent SEA Games. Let justice and unity prevail in Philippine sports. (Please read: Justice and Freedom for Philippine Sports.)

Feature pic courtesy of Manila Times. Other photos courtesy of Rappler, PNA News Agency, PNP.gov.ph.

For more on Philippine Dragon Boating, pls read:

Unmasking the Philippine Sports Mafia

The Fight to Liberate Philippine Sports Continues

Lessons to be Learned from the ‘Battle of Champions’ in Bohol

Restoring Dragon Boat

Exposing the Lies Peddled by the Philippine Canoe Kayak Dragonboat Federation

Why the PCKF is in a No-Win Situation in Its Stint in the 2018 ICF World Championships

The Travails of Philippine Dragon Boating

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