Dragon boat racing is a fast-growing team watersport that originated in China centuries ago and has since spread worldwide. Race festivals are held yearlong in many different types of waterways. Individual races at these events usually involve several rival boats carrying teams of 20 paddlers, 1 drummer, and 1 steersperson all working in tandem. Many races involve mixed-gender teams, but same-gender teams are common as well. Whether you are part of a community team, a local racing club, or a national team, the sport combines 2,500 years of tradition with modern-day notions of teamwork, enthusiasm, and strategy.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DRAGON BOATING?
Dragon boating holds numerous fitness, social, cultural, and charitable benefits for individual paddlers and local communities:
- The sport’s unique paddling stroke is a whole-body exercise that can greatly strengthen one’s upper body, legs, and core while also improving cardiovascular endurance.
- As with any team sport, there is no substitute for the camaraderie that comes with dedicating one’s time and effort to a dragon boat team, both on and off the water.
- No prior experience is required to become a dragon boat paddler. On most teams, novices learn the ropes under the guidance of veteran paddlers who have years of experience, allowing them to build their skills, physical endurance, and passion for the sport gradually while also gaining race experience at local festivals.
- Dragon boat festivals often promote Asian culture through musical performances, martial-arts demonstrations, informational exhibits, special vendors, children’s events, and other features.
- Dragon boat practices and races take place on some of the most beautiful waterways in the world, promoting greater appreciation and preservation of cherished outdoor spaces. Curious manatees, dolphins, and other wildlife often pay friendly visits to teams as they paddle out.
- Most proceeds from dragon boat festivals go toward charitable activities and promotion of the sport. Paddlers have also formed teams dedicated to raising money for specific causes, such as breast-cancer awareness.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Dragon boat races vary in length, ranging from furious 100-meter sprints to 2,000-meter marathons and beyond. The most common distance is 500 meters.
An International Racing Standard Dragon Boat is 12.49 meters long (or around 40 feet) and weighs 250 kg (around 550 lbs).
Most boats consist of plywood seat rows enclosed in a glassfibre reinforced polyester hull, with a decorative wooden dragon’s head to provide a traditional and fiercely inspiring look on race day.
In 2012, an Australian dragon boat club paddled more than 115 miles in 24 hours to raise money for cerebral palsy research, setting a Guinness World Record for endurance paddling.
HISTORY AND FOLKLORE
The use of dragon boats for racing is believed to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Yangtze River — the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia. The sport was often practiced as part of annual water rituals and festivals celebrating the summer rice planting, usually linked with traditional Chinese veneration of the dragon water deity.
Dragon boating is also rooted in the life and death of ancient Chinese patriot-poet Qu Yuan, a minister who advocated reforms in his home state of Chu in the third century B.C. The king refused to listen to his advice and instead banished him. In exile, Qu Yuan wrote poetry expressing his concern for his country and people. Years later, when he heard that Chu had been invaded by a rival state, he drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in protest.
Legend has it that the people of Chu tried to rescue Qu Yuan but were too late. To keep the fish and evil spirits from his body, they beat drums, splashed the water furiously with their paddles, and threw zung-ze (steamed rice wrapped in reed leaf) into the river. Some of these and other traditions are still carried out at Chinese dragon boat festivals to honor the memory of Qu Yuan.