Everything You Wanted to Know About Dragon Boat Racing but were Afraid to Ask


A dragon boat is a monster-canoe that seats 22, 20-paddlers, a coxswain to steer the regal beast on a straight course, and a drummer to bark orders and pound the pace. The races are 500 metres of paddle-powered fury, itís no wonder this is the

A dragon boat is a monster-canoe that seats 22, 20-paddlers, a coxswain to steer the regal beast on a straight course, and a drummer to bark orders and pound the pace. The races are 500 metres of paddle-powered fury, itís no wonder this is the fastest growing sport on water. Forget the Kentucky Derbyóto this sportís millions of fans no two-minutes of racing action compares to the oar war of a dragon boat heat. We get right down to the belly of this 2200 year-old Ancient Chinese pastime with Smoke on the Water co-captain Graeme Turner.

Is a dragon boat just a giant rowboat with a fiercer attitude?

Itís more like a war canoe, but itís longer and smaller on the sides.

Do you ever feel like youíre on that slave ship in Ben-Hur?

Sometimes I do.

Whatís your dragon boating philosophy?

At a race I always say PMA-Positive Mental Attitude here, weíre going to win!

How physically exerting is dragon boat racing, how do you arms feel after the first time you try it?

Itís a good workoutóitís exhausting. The first time you try it youíll find that your arms hurt if you donít understand the technique, because itís completely different than canoeing. Canoeing is all arms whereas in dragon boating you are pretty much straight-armed and using your stomach and back muscles all the time. Your core muscles are what really power you through your stroke.

Describe the thrill of neck and neck dragons on the run?

We lost by one one-hundredth of a second just last month in Milton. This is just a blink of an eye right at the end. The race was won by one final thrust. When you know there is another boat beside you, your adrenaline is driving you to pull as much water as you can with your paddle. You want to win, you want to get across that finish line before they do, and so you reach for every ounce of energy left at your disposal.

When you lose by such a slim margin can you feel it right away?

No, we were standing by the podium waiting for the medals to be announced and we still didnít know. The anticipation of winning was really high and then the disappointment when we found out we lost by one one-hundreths of a second [was huge], it was very depressing.

Whatís your race strategy?

Our race strategy is to take five deep powerful strokes, then go into ten faster strokes to bring the boat up to its maximum speed. From here our race strategy is about consistent paddling what we call long deep strokes. In the last 100 metres, the finish, we try to summon as much power as we can. We donít go out of control because if you do youíll actually slow down because you wonít get enough water on your paddle, thatís known as spinning your wheels.

Is synchronized rowing key in dragon boating?

Yes, because if youíre not synchronized you start to caterpillar. When you see a caterpillar or centipede walk, its back legs arenít in time with its middle legs and so you slow your boat down when things get out of synch.

Is Dragon Boating a very social sport?

Itís a strong social sport that brings out a lot of different people and you never know whatís going happen. Around six people on our team have gotten together. I met my girlfriend dragon boating and weíre living together now.

Do you guys ever capsize?

It happens many times. During one race we had a rogue wave hit our boat, (thatís what we blame it on), and it lifted our coxís paddle right out of the water and since our lefts are stronger than our rights the boat pulled left and we bumped into another boat and it capsized. Sometimes everybody on a boat gets really excited and then the next thing you know it capsizes

So what does Lake Ontario taste like?

Lake Ontario tastes like the worst cough medicine you could possibly take.

An words of wisdom for first-time dragon boaters?

Work through the pain, there are goals at the end. Pool practices discourage a lot of people because you sit at the pool edge and practice your timing and go absolutely nowhere. Itís not until you actually sit in a boat that you realize this is a great sport, the excitement of racing is of such a high intensity.

Do you celebrate no matter what after a race?

We celebrate win or lose, we get together weíll stick around the event and watch other races, usually there is always a beer tent to go to either to cheer your medal or drown your sorrows.

It seems Canadians are preternaturally inclined toward rowing, are Canucks also natural born dragon boaters?

I think so. I think the sport has really taken off. Toronto Island is the second largest dragon boat festival in the world next to Hong Kong, it draws at least 60 to 70 thousand people a day over to the island during the festival. Canadians take to it, everybody is really excited about dragon boating and it keeps growing, weíre getting more teams each year.

An abbreviated version of this story first ran in the Toronto Sun

Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2006

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