Tradition of Racing
Dragon boat racing, or dragonboating, is a water sport steeped in tradition and history. Believed to have started more than 2,500 years ago, the first dragonboats were built to appease the powerful water deities; possessing great strength and power, the Dragon is very symbolic to the people of China. To honor these mythological creatures, dragonboats were fashioned in the dragons’ likeness, complete with head, tail, and vividly painted eyes and scales.
While the dragonboat is not a canoe, these two types of boat share similarities in that they are both paddleboats, as opposed to oar-based rowing boats. The paddles are not attached to the boat and paddlers kneel, facing in the direction they are moving, rather than sitting and facing the rear of the back, as those who use rowing oars must do. Canoes are fashioned from hollowing out tree trunks, but the dragonboat is fashioned from taking three hollowed-out logs and then lashing them together, much in the fashion of the bamboo rafts, still seen in China today.
In ancient China, the dragon boat races were usually held during the water festivals. During these festivals, human sacrifice was not unheard of, and competitors fought violent battles between dragonboats. The crews would clash ferociously, pelting one another with stones or striking the competition with bamboo poles. Paddlers were often lost and it was not uncommon for some ships to capsize, spilling the entire crew into the water.
Even if the crew was struggling, no one would offer any kind of assistance. If someone drowned during the race, it was believed to be the will of the water deity or dragon. Those who had the misfortune of losing their lives were simply a sacrifice that dragon had demanded. Holding races was a great way of honoring the water spirits; venerating the magical beasts in such a fashion encouraged said dragons to reward the people with much-needed rainfall, enabling their crops to grow. To the people of ancient China, this was a suitable trade.
Modern-day races are traditionally held to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a political poet. Qu Yuan lived during the second half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, in China, and his works are commonly found in the anthology of poetry known as Chu Ci. Wading into the Miluo River, while holding a great rock, legend has it that this “peoples’ poet” committed ritualistic suicide as he protested how corrupt China had become. The common people rushed out into the water and began to beat drums and splash at the water with the paddles of their boats in order to keep the fish from eating parts of the poet’s body. Not about to accept his death, they sprinkled rice across the water; some legends say this was for him to eat while others state that the rice was to further divert the fish.
Late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and stated that the rice that they had left him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. The way to thwart this beast, he told them, was to wrap the rice in 3-cornered silk packages, which would ward off the beast. Apparently, this tactic worked well in the eyes of the ancient people and, to this day, people uphold this tradition by eating zongzi, a sticky rice that has been wrapped in leaves rather than silk.
The standard crew of a dragonboat consists of 22 men; 20 paddlers, a drummer (otherwise known as caller) at the bow of the boat, facing towards the 20 paddlers, and 1 steerer (tiller or coxswain) who sits at the back of the boat. Dragonboats can vary in length and it’s not uncommon to find smaller ones that fit 10 men, clear up to extremely large boats that will seat 50 or more. Occasionally, a gong ringer will also be included on the crew list, though this is not essential.
The drummer is the dragonboat’s heartbeat; its rhythmic beat leading the crew through the race. A good drummer is capable of synchronizing the cadence of his drum with the strokes of the front pair of paddlers, setting the timing and frequency of paddling strokes. A skilled caller can not only beat his drum, but also directs the crew through hand signals and voice calls. The drummer is an essential part of the crew and it is mandatory that every dragonship have one, at every racing event.
It is also the drummer (or caller), who is in charge of keeping track of what position they are in, in relation to all the other racers, as well as to the finish line. The drummer decides when the dragonboat must suddenly surge ahead or when the crew should hold steady. Able to feel the power of the paddler group through their feet and the muscles of the gluteus maximus, an expert caller seems to be one with the boat. They are the directors, anticipating each and every move of the crew, and then changing the paddlers to compensate. When dealing with the longer ships (those sporting 40+ paddlers), drummers are often positioned in the middle of the boat, so the entire crew may hear them clearly.
The majority of the dragonboat crew is comprised of paddlers. Kneeling or crouching in the bottom of the boat, most paddlers rely upon the front two paddlers (often known as ‘strokers’), to synchronize their own paddling with. It is this leading pair that sets the pace and determines the strengths and weaknesses of the team, compensating for these.
The final participant in a dragonboat’s crew is the steerer. Also known as a helm, tiller, sweep or coxswain, the steerer controls what direction that the dragonboat will travel in. Using a large wooden oar (the only one that is attached, out of all the paddles used), the steerer is situated at the rear of the boat and serves much like a tiller. Often making calls back and forth with the drummer, the steerer is in a wonderful position to work as the team’s own cheering section, encouraging them on.
Taiwanese flag catchers were popularized as another member of a dragon boat crew, in races that started on the island of Taiwan. Sitting behind the drummer for the majority of the race, they come into play as the boats near the finish line; once they begin to near the finish, the flag catchers scuttle out and take seats atop the elaborately-carved heads of the dragonboats.
The flag catcher’s sole purpose is to reach out and grab the flag for their lane, as their boat crosses the finish line. Failing to accomplish this seemingly simple task will result in a disqualification. The first boat to grab their flag as they cross the finish line, is the winner. This method was helpful in determining the winner in a very close race, back before there were things like photo finishes.
Commanding the strength, endurance and skill that are important amongst dragon boat racers, this sport is also prized for the camaraderie that it bolsters. Very popular as a corporate and charity sport, dragonboating instills drive and pride, but also teaches substantially-sized groups to work together, corporate and form a team in order to get the job done. Dragon boat racing instills one with a feeling of harmony and a sense of purpose.
Modern dragon boat racing is organized, on an international level, by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). They recognize two separate forms of dragon boat racing, in which, contestants may participate: The festival races usually consist of a sprint of approximately 500 meters. Longer endurance races, such as the 100 kilometer 3 Gorges Dam Rally, along the Yangtze River, are not unheard of either. Sport racing distances are normally 200m, 250m, 500m, 1,000m, and 2,000m, with formal Rules of Racing. With the festival races, they tend to be more heavily ruled by tradition and are more informal. Racing rules usually vary from event to event.
Due to the long history of dragonboating in China (and the large population base there), participants in cultural and racing events number at more than 50 million. Over the past 25 years, and with the forming of the IDBF, the sport of dragon boat racing has spread throughout and beyond Asia, into Europe, North America, Africa and Australia. In fact, to date, it is one of the fastest growing team water sports in the world. If you’re looking for a new and exciting team sport, be sure to check out this traditional favorite. The lure of the dragonboats may be too powerful for you too!