In Chinese culture, the classic Dragon rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain; a revered symbol of strength and power.
The Dragon Boat is deeply embedded in China’s ‘Dragon’ culture, with each Boat having an ornately carved dragon’s head at the Bow, a tail in the Stern and the Hull is painted with the Dragon’s scales. In ancient China, it was used for religious purposes as a way of appeasing the rain gods.
The history of dragon boats can be traced back to more than 2000 years ago, along the banks of the life-sustaining rivers in Southern china, such as the Chang Jiang (now the Yangtze). There are two main legends popularly related to the custom of racing dragon boats.
Awakening the dragon – Chinese Dragon Boat Festival
The traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to middle June), which is traditionally considered a month of death and disease, evil and darkness, due to the high summer temperatures (in China). Therefore, venerating the awakening Dragon was meant to avert misfortune and encourage rainfall, needed for the fertility of crops and prosperity of the people. The annual celebration is meant to protect the people from evil & disease for the rest of the year.
The Dragon Boat Festival was primarily held as a ceremony to awaken the hibernating ‘Heavenly Dragon’. Sacrifices, sometimes human, were involved in this ritual and it could be a violent clash with the crew members of the competing boats throwing stones and striking each other with cane sticks. Originally, paddlers (or even an entire team) falling into the water could receive no assistance from onlookers as the accident was considered to be due to the will of this ‘Dragon Deity’ and could not be interfered with; if people drowned it was considered a sacrifice.
Dragon Boating is the mass participation paddle sport of today, with an ancient past and a very bright future. Not yet an Olympic sport but heading that way fast, Dragon Boat Racing is a ‘team sport’; a very social sport and great fun too! Attractive to the corporate market and as a ‘community activity’ it is also a high performance sport for elite standard athletes. This ability range in a team sport full of tradition, culture and social interaction is highly desirable in today’s world. Dragon Boating is a sport and recreational activity that can be pursued by everyone and anyone of all abilities and at every level of competition. That is the greatness of Dragon Boating.
What is a Dragon Boat?
A dragon boat is a human-powered watercraft. They were traditionally made in the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province out of teak wood (mostly imported from Pontianak, Indonesia) to various designs and sizes. In other parts of China, different kinds of wood are used to build the traditional watercraft. It is one of a family of traditional paddled longboats found throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and also Puerto Rico. Currently, boats are being made for competitive purposes out of carbon fiber and other lightweight materials.
The fiberglass boats are approximately 12 meters long and decorated with a dragon’s head and tail. Each boat holds up to 20 paddlers sitting two-by-two. There is a steersperson who steers the boat and the paddlers are kept in time by a drummer who beats a drum.
The first pair of paddlers, called “pacers,” “strokes” or “timers,” set the pace for the team and are responsible for synchronizing their strokes with one another. It is critical that all paddlers are synchronized. Each paddler should synchronize with the stroke or pacer on the opposite side of the boat, that is, if you paddle starboard side (right) you would take your timing from the port side (left) stroke. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the steersperson, rather than by the paddlers while actually racing, however for docking and other manoeuvres, individual paddlers may be asked to paddle (while others either stop the boat or rest) according to the commands given by the drummer or steersperson.
Our usual race distances have been 250m (short race) and 500m (standard race), although some race events have various distances, right up to 3000 metres!