Dragon Boat Festival soaring back to Lewes

January 21, 2020

Sussex Academy Foundation plans to bring back the Lewes Dragon Boat Festival this summer. 

After a two-year hiatus, the fundraising arm of Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences is reviving the popular boat race Aug. 27-30 at Canalfront Park in downtown Lewes. A request to use the park was approved by Lewes Mayor and City Council Jan. 13.

“We’ve had a lot of requests to bring it back,” said Gina Derrickson, communications manager for Sussex Academy Foundation, which is organizing the event with Krista and Stuart Griffin.

The timing is also right, she said, as Sussex Academy, currently a grade 6-12 school, recently submitted an application to add an elementary grades. The Sussex Academy board voted 11-0 Oct. 16 meeting to move forward with a major modification application to become a K-12 charter school. School officials are anticipating a decision by April. 

Details for the revitalized Dragon Boat Festival are still to be worked out, but Griffin said organizers want to look at the event with fresh eyes.

“We want to take the things that worked and [drop] the things that didn’t and see if we can improve it,” she said.

In past events, teams of 20 paddlers, a drummer and a navigator raced against each other for about 500 yards. Each team, typically a local business or organization, participates in heats, with the best times advancing to the knockout rounds.  

The race has traditionally been held in September, but racing company Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing is no longer available in the shoulder season. The weekend before Labor Day was the best option, Griffin said.

The new date drew criticism from council and one business owner who attended the Jan. 13 meeting.

“We fully support the event, but having it in the high season does not seem practical,” said Andrea Spuck, co-owner of Puzzles and Lewes Gourmet on Front Street.

Spuck said the event is self-contained, which has severely affected her businesses in the past. And while the event may use shuttles for participants and visitors, she noted that the event will still use all the available parking in the Canalfront Park and Little League parking lots.

Councilwoman Bonnie Osler said the application’s estimate of 5,000 attendees was concerning. However, she said, past experience tells her crowds likely won’t be anywhere near that number.

“I hope you can look at our track record the last five years and see there’s nothing that didn’t go well,” Griffin responded. “We did everything you asked of us and went above and beyond.”

Osler said she would go along with the event this year, but she asked that it be held in the shoulder season if it were to return next year.

The festival began in 2013 as a fundraiser for Sussex Academy’s capital campaign. More than $316,000 was raised in the festival’s first five years. The event raised money for Sussex Academy and local nonprofit organizations such as the Lewes Public Library.

In September, the foundation hosted the inaugural Balloons Over Sussex festival at Delaware Coastal Airport in Georgetown. Derrickson said the revival of the Dragon Boat Festival does not mean the balloon festival is dead. She said the goal is to bring it back, but there are many issues that need to be addressed.

“We know we can do the Dragon Boat Festival,” she said. “Eventually we hopefully can do both.”