August 5, 2009

Dragon Boats

A couple of years ago my adventure group was on a bike trip when we stumbled across the DC Dragon Boat Festival. The large canoe-like boats decorated with scales and dragon heads were crewed by teams of 20 paddlers, a drummer and someone to navigate. The festival drew teams from around the region, and a few international participants, to compete in races on the Potomac river.

This past weekend, five of us had a last-minute opportunity to participate in a Dragon Boat/Outrigger Canoe clinic sponsored by Washington Women Outdoors and the National Capital Area Women's Paddling Association (NCAWPA). I'll write about the Outriggers later and focus on the Dragon Boats today. I didn't manage to get any pictures of the festival or the clinic so click here to see NCAWPA's photo gallery.

History of Dragon Boats

According to the American Dragon Boat Association, the history of Dragon Boats begins with The legend of Chu Yuan:

Over 2000 years ago Chu Yuan, poet, warrior and loyal aide to the emperor, fell victim to plots and deception and found himself out of favor at court. When the old emperor died, Chu Yuan was unjustly banished and wandered the countryside composing poems he hoped would be heard and heeded by the new emperor. His inconsolable desolation grew until one day he threw himself into the Mi Lo River. His devoted followers, learning of his death, rushed to search for his body. Fearing the fish might devour the body; they beat their paddles on the water and banged drums and gongs to frighten the fish. Today, athletes from around the world meet to commemorate Yuan's sacrifice for honor and justice in the form of Dragon Boat Racing.

It's a full body workout

A Dragon Boat race is essentially a sprint. The courses tend to be shorter than those for Outrigger Canoe races and the key to the speed of the boat is for each member of the team to paddle in unison. The more perfect the synchronization the better. The goal: a team that acts like a strong well-oiled machine.

Before climbing into the boat, we practiced our paddling technique on dry land. The boat has 10 double seats to accommodate the 20 paddlers, so we stood in two lines to simulate the boat. Each person dedicated her paddling to only one side. Paddling itself isn't a test of arm strength. It's a full body workout.

I was on the left side of the boat so I started by grasping the top of my paddle with my right hand; the left was positioned just above the blade. To begin the stroke, I raised my right arm until my elbow was next to my right ear. The left arm was extended straight in front. To get the most out of a stroke, I was told to rotate my torso slightly toward the inside of the boat, extend the paddle forward, bend at the hip, put the blade into the water so that is was completely submerged, then counter rotate-- turning my torso toward the outside of the boat while sitting up, pulling the blade back and pushing off with my legs to get added power. Raise the blade and repeat. Yep, a full body workout.

We had a wonderful time at the clinic and agreed that our Adventure Club will be entering a team in the DC Dragon Boat Festival next May. Festival teams only have three practices before the big weekend so it's fun without being a huge time commitment. I enjoyed the clinic so much, I may sign on for a longer stint.

If Dragon Boats sound interesting to you, check out a festival in your area. There are organizations and events all around the globe. Here are some links to get you started:

American Dragon Boat Association



International Dragon Boat Federation, List of international affiliates

Los Angeles


Nova Scotia



Worldwide Dragon Boat Calendar

Photo credit: Abbie Mulvihill

updated 2/19/11

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