Dragonboating - The Sport
Dragon Boat racing and competing has existed in one form or another for more than 2,000 years, for ceremonial and traditional purposes but now is also an internationally recognised sport. The first acknowledged international Festival was organised in Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau in 1976.
A standard (regulated by the IDBF - International Dragon Boat Federation) competing boat holds a crew of 22, 20 paddlers who sit in pairs on bench seats facing the prow of the boat, 1 drummer who sits in a high mounted chair on the bow facing the paddlers and 1 steersman (helmsman or sweep) who stands at the stern. Below you will find information about the roles of crew members and a brief outline of paddling technique, on joining the club you will be given one-on-one paddling training by an experienced club member and, once in the boat, coached by the trainer, helm or a nearby club member. We never expect anyone to over exert themselves and there is never any shame in taken a paddle out of the water until you feel able to continue or get back into synch.
The role of the 'caller' or drummer in competition is to provide the rhythm which enables each paddler to synchronise with the next, as the drumbeat sounds the paddlers dig their paddle into the water. They can increase or decrease the pace as necessary throughout a race. To compete in official competions the drummer is mandatory, during training their prescence is optional. They take the lead from the 'stroke pair' the front two paddlers but an experienced drummer will know when to increase the frequency for more power and speed or drop it to save the crew's energy levels over a long course ready for the final surge to the finish line. As a club we somewhat unconventionally use the drummers seat as a training position. One of our trainers takes a break from paddling to concentrate on improving our crews technique, especially with new members. Normally this role is taken by the helm (at the back) but we train on the open sea and sometimes it becomes difficult for a crew to hear commands over the wind and waves. Also our steersmen have to negotiate hidden rocks, large swells and the approach of yachts, speedboats and fishermen so we prefer them to concentrate on keeping us safe!
The Paddler and Technique
The role of the paddlers is to, obviously, provide the engine for the boat. They are not involved in steering or directing the boat in any way during a race or race training, the only strokes are forward and applying the brakes! The helm steers us along the course and his or her word is absolute. 'Stop the boat!' means exactly that - all paddles go vertically into the water and are held there until the boat is stationery - otherwise you paddle for all you are worth to the finish line. There are other strokes (back paddling, draw stroke and steadying the boat) involved whilst manoeuvering the boat to leave or enter the beach or dock, to line up at the start of the race or to recover a dropped paddle or an unsteady sweep. These will all be taught during training/technique sessions.
Forward Paddling - the 'stroke cycle'
Dragonboating has no relation to any rowing or sculling sport or technique, the paddle is single bladed and purely hand held, not attached to the racing vessel at all - hence we are 'paadlers' not oarsmen or rowers. The nearest relations are kayaking/canoeing, rafting but the style is very different. Here is the stroke cycle broken down into the generally recognised four part sequence:
The Catch (or Reach and Catch):With the inboard arm held high, hand gripping the handle of the paddle, outboard hand holding the paddle shaft about an inch above the 'blade' the paddler is leaning forward as far as possible, slightly twisted towards your paddling partner with the paddle at around 60 degrees to the water. The inboard arm/hand is used to guide the paddles entry to begin the cycle - it is not a power motion but extremely important in steadying the entry and keeping the bade at 90 degrees to the boat.
The Pull:This is the 'power' behind the stroke, with the inboard arm still held high the pull bring the paddle back through the water with as much strength as possible. This begins at the toes of your leading, outboard leg (the other leg is tucked behind and underneath the seat), through the calf, thigh, buttocks back and stomach and finally with the outboard arm until the paddle is in line with the hips.
The Release:At this point the inboard arm comes into play again to pluck the paddle, vertically out of the water, one clean movement whilst rotating the torso slightly ready for the final section of the cycle:
The Recovery:Here the paddler continues the torso rotation and snaps the paddle back into the 'Catch' position. This movement is crucial, the boat is in effect stopping at this point so the faster the paddle can be returned into the water the more efficient the forward motion
That is the basis of the stroke, there are variations on the theme, essentially if every paddler performs the same series of movements and in perfect synchronicity then the boat will be perfectly stable and moving forward efficiently. At the head of the boat the 'strokes' or 'stroke pair' set the pace, all paddlers behind watch their diagonal partner (not their paddles) and all is perfect! When this fails you will feel the boat begin to wobble and from the shore onlookers will have a good laugh as it appears that a large and ungainly caterpillar is crawling across the water.
The Helm or Sweep
The steersperson on a dragonboat uses a long paddle, known as steering arm or sweep oar, to direct the boat. It is looped through a steering bracket mounted slightly offside at the stern of the boat. By using sideways 'sweeping' movements the helm can turn the boat around whilst stationary, pushing the oar away from them (left - away from the boat) to turn right, pulling towards them (right - into the boat) to navigate left. The same goes for steering the craft whilst moving but with smaller movements, in a race situation, if the boat is well balanced and crew in time with each other the steering arm can be lifted out of the water leaving the boat travelling in a straight line which greatly reduces drag, therefore increasing speed. Minimal dips of the oar into the water can correct slight veers. Essentially the helm is the only person who can see what lies ahead and is relied upon for safely guiding the boat and keeping the crew safe. The trainer or drummer at the front is the only voice in the boat during a race or training session, the helm has the override call if anything out of the ordinary occurs, weather or water conditions change, there are obstructions ahead or any defect within the boat is noted. In the abscence of a trainer/drummer it is usual for the steer to take over the training and instruction.
As a club we are fortunate to be able to offer helm training to any paddler wishing to learn, this involves a safety talk, training commands and the opportunity to be in charge of a dragonboat powered by a rib with outboard motor at speed whilst you practice your turns!
If you would like to sign up for a helm course:
Dragonboating - The Boats, The History and Legend
There are many stories, legends and theories surrounding dragonboats none of them definitive but for your interest we have gathered together a little potted history of the sport below. Should you wish to read more we recommend visiting Andrew Chittick's site: www.dragonboathistory.com which seems to be one of the more definitive sites on the historical side and from which we have drawn our references.
Construction and decoration:
The original Chinese dragon boats are constructed from teak planks, with camphor wood ornamental heads and tails. However, most modern dragon boats, such as the ones used in Phuket, are constructed from fibreglass, with detachable fibreglass ornamental heads and tails fitted only during a race. These heads, tails and the boat itself are said to be based on the classical notion of a Chinese Dragon, the ornamental head we attach being that of an ox, the 'horns' are the antlers of a deer and the crest or mane being that of a horse. The boat itself signifies the body of the dragon, which is traditionally a snake, hence the painted scales along the sides. The paddles are indicative of the serpent's eagle claws and the ornamental tail represents that of a fish.
Competition boats and races:Competitions organised by the IDBF call for competing boats to be built within their regulations, typical complemented with a crew of 18 - 20 paddlers, helm and drummer in 'Standard' sized Dragon boats and 8 - 10 paddlers, steerer and drummer in the 'Small' boat category.
The races are held over a variety of distances ranging from 200 to 2,000 metres (and beyond!). Here at the Phuket Dragons we concentrate more between the 200m to 500m distances so don't let the figures above put you off!
First Recorded 'Competition' - Military Training
As far back as 550 AD there is evidence that military excercises took place, known as jingdu literally translated from Chinese as 'competitive crossing'. Where Naval teams from Southern China manning oared (rather than paddled) longboats competed with each other to cross a river using a combination of paddling prowess and combat. These longboats being used in battle because of their speed and manoueverability against more cumbersome vessels used by their adversaries. Eventually these excercises became an event whose popularity spread slowly across China.
In the 600's the Tang Imperial Court began to use ornamented boats for the jingdi events, turning them into a true entertainment spectacle.
Birth of the Dragon Boat
The jingdu training events continued and by 800 AD they were used as recruitment drives for the Navy as well as entertainment. Winners of the races gained promotion within the ranks. The boats carried different decorations according to taste but the Imperial Boats were always dragon based - because of the imperial connection the other designs faded out and the races became known as 'Dragon Boat Competitions'. Over the centuries the events were no longer used for recruitment and became purely local sports which were somewhat brutal in their winning tactics. Paddles instead of oars were introduced, this enabled more competitors to pack into each boat and seemingly also gave them more of a weapon to fight with! The boats got longer, the number of paddlers increased, up to 30 metres long with an 80 strong crew. This must have been quite some spectacle, thankfully no longer practised.
In the 19th Century Britain and France amongst othe Europeans tightly controlled the Chinese Manchu Empire and decided that the dragonboating custom was corrupt and led to undesirable practices and repressed it although it did manage to continue. In the 2th century some reformers saw its potential as a sport for good but in the early 1960's it was banned completely by the Communist government as it represented old values.
It wasn't until 1976 that the sport as we know it was reborn in Hong Kong under the British controlled government as a way to boost tourism. From this first Festival held in Hong Kong the sport has spread across the world and become what we know today. In 1991 the IDBF - International Dragonboat Federation was formed.
The Popular Myth of Qu Yuan
According to common legend Dragonboat Festivals sprang into being to commemorate the death of the famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan who drowned himself in the 3rd century BC as a political protest. Fishermen rushed out to rescue him in their boats, thrashing their paddles in the water and throwing out rice to prevent fish from eating him, bringing about the Dragonboat tradition of one paddler standing in the boat searching for the body, while a drummer and ferocious looking dragon heads and tails were added to frighten away evil water spirits.
There are many other tales out there explaining the birth of our sport but this is by far the most compelling - unfortunately there is no evidence to support the story but to this day Dragonboat events and festivals are dedicated to Qu Yuan