dragon boating summer challenge

Dragon Boating – Your Next Summer Challenge?

You may have been at a lake or near a river when you hear people cheering loudly. You look over in the direction of the noise to see a crowd of people on the bank. What are they watching?

As you push your way through the crowd, you see flashes of long, colorful boats skimming through the water. They are manned by up 10 – 50 people, working in tandem to power the boat along the water’s surface, a drummer beating out a rhythm, and the steerer, keeping the boat on course.

dragon boat races
Dragon Boat Race

If it is a Flag Catching boat there will also be a flag puller to catch the lane flag as their boat crosses the finish line. The boats vary in length depending on the size of the crew, but they are most identifiable by the often intricate dragon heads at the front of the boat.

Dragon boats are sometimes adorned with equally lavish tails and scales, as well. Your blood begins to pump with the excitement of the yelling, the pounding of the drum, and the beckoning of a new adventure. If you’re looking for you’re next summer challenge, dragon boating may be it!

The Beginning

There are several aspects of dragon boating that can be learned before you decide to take part in a race. The history, while it likely will not help you in an actual race, is fascinating and will at the very least help you to appreciate the traditions of the race.

The positions held by the members of the team have both purpose and history. While you may only hold one position in the boat, it is to your benefit to know what purpose the other positions serve.

Knowing this will help you perform your function better and you’ll have an improved understanding of how the team can work together. And finally, you’ll want to consider whether this summer sport is for you. Are you up for it? What do you need to do to prepare yourself? 

The History of Dragon Boating

If you’re a romantic or an adventurer, the history of dragon boating will only peak your interest more. The story of Qu Yuan, a fourth-century B.C. Dreamer, poet, and patriot, is quixotic and tragic – a tale befitting the beauty of the dragon boats.

When the king fell under corrupt influences Qu Yuan was banned for his political opinions and left to wander the countryside. Upon learning that his country had been taken over by their rivals, Qu Yuan threw himself into the river.

Qu Yuan on a dragon boat
Qu Yuan on a dragon boat, By Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0

The people who loved him took their boats into the river splashing their oars and beating their drums to keep the fish and water dragons away from his body. They threw rice into the water to feed his soul and honor him.

Qu Yuan’s spirit later came to them and told them that a huge dragon was trying to intercept the rice that was meant for him and told them to wrap the rice in silk and five colors of string

Other legends place the races on the rivers of Southern China over 2000 years ago. As a fertility rite, it was meant to ensure the health and abundance of their crops by dodging misfortune and encouraging the rains that would bring prosperity. It was held on the summer solstice, the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar.

Physical Shape

Before you sign up for your first race, the first thing you may ask yourself is whether or not you are in shape enough to participate in a dragon boat race.

There are many levels of dragon boaters. There are people who are fairly inactive and are participating in their first race. On the other end of the spectrum, there are dragon boat racers who are in top shape and have been doing it for years.

team mates dragon boating
Dragon Boating Team Mates

Knowing how to swim is not necessary as life jackets are not optional. In fact, in the race I was in, your whole team would be disqualified if someone even took their life jacket off before entering or leaving the docking area.

When I participated in my first race I was more on the inactive side. Sure, I walked once in awhile, but the gym and I had not been getting along for many years. If you are considering participating in a dragon boat race, try to find a team that is a good mixture of newbies and old pro’s.

This will keep your boat balanced and will assure you that you have experienced teammates to give you good advice. I was fortunate enough to find a team like this. Those who were more experienced made sure that the less experienced of us were place strategically in the boat so that it wouldn’t have too much of an affect on the race if we had to stop and breathe partway through. 

A Unique Form of Paddling

It is important to remember that dragon boating is not like rowing a row boat, paddling a kayak, or even paddling in a canoe. Each boating activity has it’s own unique form of paddling.

If you have been in another type of boat you must throw out everything you’ve learned about handling the oar. The motions of handling an oar in a dragon boat require the use of different muscles and the patterns are different.


Once you learn the basics of paddling, you’ll want to practice at home. You’ll need to get used to using you’re whole body and not just your arms as you dig the paddle into the water, then lean back to propel the boat forward.

You may want to practice with one or more of your team mates as keeping in sync is essential.

While you will want to practice your paddling technique, dragon boat racing does not require you to train for a significant amount of time. The most important factor is becoming coordinated with your team mates and learning the proper paddling techniques.

dragon boat drummer
Dragon Boat Drummer

Sync is the Key

Which brings me to a very important point. Keeping in sync with the other paddlers is essential. It is best not to watch the person in front of you.

Instead, focus on the lead strokers at the front of the boat. By following the person in front of you, each consecutive person is off by just a fraction of a second. This may cause you and your team mates to lose the pattern guided by the drummer.

If everyone loses their synchronization, it will slow down the speed of the boat. If you do find that you are losing the rhythm (and trust me, the first few times you are in a dragon boat, losing the rhythm is inevitable), pull your paddle out completely until you can get back into the synchronization of the group.

Rock with the team and feel the pull of the boat. When your body has the rhythm back, listen to the drum and begin on the next stroke.

Feel the Beat

Listening to the drum and feeling its beat is something you can do before you even get into a boat.

When you are watching other dragon boat teams practice (and I highly recommend this as it helps you develop a feel for the race), close your eyes and just listen to the drum.

The drum is like a pulse of one well-tuned athlete. Feel the pulse pump through your body. Rock with it if you are moved to do so. Rocking is good practice, too, because when you are pulling the oars through the water your body rocks with the motion of the boat.

Also called the caller, the drummer guides the speed of the boat. As his drumming increases, so does the paddlers speed. The drummer is expected to read wind conditions and know when to increase the tempo or decrease it. The drummer is like the team motivator, encouraging all to work at peak performance levels.

The steerer works along with the drummer. The steerer may issue forth commands that have the paddler increase speed, slow down, bring the boat to a halt, or turn the boat in another direction. Occasionally, the steerer my have to think fast to issue commands to avoid collision with another boat.

On one race, the steerer of our boat prevented a collision with another boat beside us that was lead by a less experienced steerer. It was because our steerer knew what to look for and had a good eye that we all didn’t end up in the lake.

Dragon Boat Race

Each dragon boat race is different. Some are more competitive, which you’ll likely want to leave to the more seasoned boaters.

Many dragon boat races are used as a means of raising money for a charity. It can be fun to raise money for the charity of your choice as a team and it will help your team grow closer together.

No matter what position you hold on your team, knowing the purpose of the other positions in the team will help you to work together and become a stronger unit.

Overall, dragon boat racing is a great experience. I’m looking forward to summer in the hopes that I’ll have the opportunity to join a team again this year. 

Bottom Line

Now look back to that first dragon boat race that pulled your attention. Hear the yelling and the cheering of the spectators. Feel the beat of the drums. Envision the colors on the dragons heads that lead the boats. Be excited.

Now, is there any doubt in your mind that dragon boating should be your next summer challenge?

Information on the legend of Qu Yuan and legends can also be found on the Regina Dragon Boat Festival website and the Northshore Dragon Boat website.


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Greg is a co-founder of DesperateSailors.com. As a computer graphic and web designer by profession, he makes sure that what you see here looks great and loads blazing fast. In recent years he has found a passion for sailing, but so far, he does not go beyond the lakes;)

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