Dragon boat racing is a team-based water sporting activity that is usually practiced in East and Southeast Asia. As a part of Asian games, this traditional Chinese sport is now known the world over.
This article offers a brief but insightful guide on dragon boat racing, its origin, and its current status. Let’s have a look.
Origin of Dragon Boat Racing
Dragon boat racing has its origins in the Warring States Period, in Southern Central China in the Dongting Lake and along the banks of the present-day Yangtze River, around 2500 years ago. The sport first originated among the fishing communities in the region.
The dragon boat originated from the Pearl River Delta in the Guangdong Province in southern China. The boats were made of teak, and in some areas, wood was used.
The sport was introduced as a folk ritual to encourage rainfall, appease the rain gods and celebrate the planting of summer rice. Since its origin, dragon boat racing has been practiced consistently as an annual water ritual. It is part of festive celebrations for the display of conventional reverence for the Chinese dragon water gods.
The concept behind the sport is based on the belief that the dragon, the only mythical Chinese zodiac sign, is the ruler of water on the earth in the lakes, rivers, and seas and also dominates the water in the heavens, including the clouds, rains, and mists.
Worshipping the dragon god was meant to prevent any misfortune or catastrophe and encourage rainfall to make the crops fertile and help the community prosper.
While the sport was initially introduced in China thousands of years ago, it began as a modern sport in Hong Kong in 1976. It is one of Hong Kong’s most colourful and competitive summer sports events and is held during the Tuen Ng Festival.
Legend has it that a great warrior and poet, Qu Yuan, jumped into the Mi Lo River to display his dissent against corruption. The people revered him and raced in their fishing boats in futile attempts to save him. They splashed their oars in water and beat drums to keep the dragon away that resided in the water.
Dragon Boat Racing Format
Dragon boat racing is an exciting and fun-filled sport. Teams compete in a dragon boat which is a large canoe-like vessel and is adorned with intricately carved dragon heads and tails. The heads and tails are usually fitted when the boat is participating in a competition. In other instances, the decoration is removed; however, the drum is kept on board so the drummer can practice.
For a racing event, around 18 to 20 people are in a standard boat, and in a smaller boat, only 8 to 10 people can be accommodated. The count does not include the steersperson and the drummer. If we consider the standard dragon boat, it comprises a crew of up to 22 members, i.e., 20 paddlers that sit in pairs and face toward the boat’s bow, one caller or drummer at the bow who is facing toward the paddlers and one steersperson who stands at the rear of the boat.
The paddlers in the crew paddle during the race over a distance of around 250 metres. The drummer is responsible for keeping the paddlers in unison while the steersperson or helmsperson guides the boat.
As mentioned earlier, dragon boats vary in length, and the crew size changes accordingly. While the standard boat can have up to 22 people, traditional bigger boats have up to 52 people, including 50 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer.
Dragon Boat Racing Today
Today the racing is organised internationally by the International Dragon Boat Federation, which is the sport’s official governing body. It is a member of the Global Association of the International Sports Federation.
Additionally, the International Canoe Federation also has a dragon boat racing program for members interested in the sport. Both the dragon boat racing festival and competitions are highly competitive. Paddlers are required to train all year round, for which they use the pool and paddling machines and have rigorous on-water training sessions.
A festival dragon boat race is usually a sprint race that has a distance of several hundred metres. Five hundred metre races are the most common. In local festivals, races are also held over distances of 100 and 250 metres, depending on the size of the water body.
In international competitions, standard races have distances of 200, 1000, and 2000 metres. The races with a distance of 2000 metres are usually held over the 500-metre course, and teams must make two loops.