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Dragon Boat Racing

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What is commonly referred to as the oldest continuously raced sport in the world is still enjoying a steady growth in popularity.

Dragon boat racing is believed to have originated on China's Mi Lo River as early as 400 BC, but never has it been as popular as it is today.

The sport has its roots in Chinese legend. According to the history of the sport (posted on the Dragon Cup USA Web site), Qu Yuan, a Chinese statesman and poet, drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in 400 BC to protest the corrupt regime of the Chu Dynasty.

Fishers who saw him raced out in an attempt to save him, but failed. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish, the fishers beat the waters with their paddles and threw rice dumplings wrapped in silk into the water as a sacrifice to his spirit.

From that beginning 2,400 years ago came the sport of dragon boat racing. Today, over a million paddlers take part in annual dragon boat festivals all over the world.

Popular for centuries in Asian countries, the sport is growing steadily in North America.

Edward Quan is the treasurer of the U.S Dragon Boat Federation. He estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 participants currently involved in the sport in the U.S. He also estimates the number of participants is increasing by about 10 percent per year.

Paul Gil is a member of the Edmonton Dragon Boat Racing Club. He estimates there are 25 major racing festivals in Canada each year. He notes that those festivals attract an average of 70 teams each.

The future of the sport looks very bright in North America. Paul Haber is a member of the Smoke on the Water Dragon Boat Club. He says it is reported to be the fastest-growing sport in the world, and everything he has seen confirms that report.

"In the last five years, I have seen the number of festivals -- as well as the number of competitors -- almost quadruple," says Haber.

"We often are involved in festivals with over 1,000 competitors. In a six-lane race, there are 112 competitors in each heat."

Participants vary in age. There are categories for men, women and mixed teams, as well as junior and senior crews. It's not uncommon for a mixed recreational team to have paddlers of all ages, from teens up to senior racers. Co-ed teams require a minimum of eight females.

The sport tends to be very social in nature. Alvin Wang is the president of the San Francisco Bay Area Dragons racing team. He says that because so many clubs are co-ed, it lends itself to more friendly competition.

"Since it is a non-contact sport, you often find competing teams getting together for a drink or dinner after the races," he says.

"In the U.S., over 80 percent of the teams are mixed. That means that at least eight paddlers are female. Most crews end up being around 50 percent female."

The fact that it's a team sport is also one of the reasons dragon boat racing is increasing in popularity with female participants, according to Wang.

"There is no sitting out in left field waiting to see a ball. Everyone paddles and everyone is critical to success," he says. "If the boat loses, it is also a team effort, so there is no point in blaming a single person, unless that person stops paddling."

Most races are between 250 and 1,000 meters in length, although there are some longer races. The most popular distance in North America is 500 m. In most cases, it takes a dragon boat crew between two and three minutes to complete a 500-m race.

Most crews consist of 22 people. Twenty crewmembers are the paddlers, sitting in two columns of 10 each. At the very front of the boat is the drummer.

According to Wang, it is a common misconception that the drummer sets the stroke rate. He says the two paddlers at the front of the columns (referred to as strokes) set the rate and the drummer follows their lead.

At the rear of the boat is the steersperson, who is responsible for keeping the boat straight. Some boats use as few as 18 paddlers, while others can use as many as 26.

Getting Started

For many competitors, the cost of getting involved in the sport is restricted to the membership fee for a dragon boat club, and the entry fee for any festival (or competition) that they enter.

In most cases, the organizers of each festival supply all of the boats, paddles and personal floatation devices the competitors will need.

Because the cost of the vessels (between $5,000 and $17,000) can be prohibitive, very few clubs actually own their own dragon boats. Some of the larger clubs in the U.S. have boats that they rent to smaller clubs and teams, to allow them to practice between races.

The sport of dragon boat racing can be very strenuous. The boats themselves can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. While most weight about 1,000 pounds, the crew is actually paddling a boat that weighs between two and three tons, once the weight of the crewmembers is factored in.

Brian Brown is a member of the Smoke on the Water Dragon Boat Club. He says the races are short in length, but very demanding.

"The typical race is three minutes long. Physically, it demands entire body strength, particularly the back and stomach muscles," he explains.

"After an hour practice on the water, you know that you've had a full body workout. I have participated in many sports and I believe dragon boating is next to none for an upper body workout."

Haber adds that in addition to endurance, strength and cardio training, dragon boat racing also has its mental health advantages. "Something about getting in a boat and pushing off from the shore immediately helps me forget my daily problems," he says.

Depending on the number of competitors entered in each category at a dragon boat festival, the races are run in a series of several heats, with the field getting smaller as the slower boats are eliminated and the top teams advance to the finals.


United States Dragon Boat Federation

American Dragon Boat Association
P.O. Box 477
Dubuque , IA   52004-0477


Boston Dragon Boat Festival
Gives an account of the legend that started it all

National Capital Dragon Boat Race Festival
Includes a section for potential volunteers

Alcan Dragon Boat Festival
Learn more about the history of the sport

Montreal International Dragon Boat Race Festival
Check out the photos

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