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Dragon Boat Racing as a Modern Sport

The sport of dragon boat racing has its roots in Ancient China, where the first dragon boat races were held more than 2500 years ago along the banks of the Yangtze River, in the same era in which the Greeks were holding their athletic competitions in Olympia. Dragon Boat racing was not introduced to the world at large until the 1970s when the Hong Kong Tourist Board staged an international Dragon Boat Festival to promote Hong Kong culture.

Since then, Dragon boat racing has spread like wildfire around the globe, with more than 50 million people now participating in competitions held on every continent. It is often heralded as the fastest growing water sport in the US, and one of the fastest-growing corporate team-building activities in the country.

Present day dragon boats are still similar to those raced over two thousand years ago. Each crew consists of 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steersperson. Teams race in a sprint along a straight course ranging from 250 to 2,000 meters. Top speed comes with a well-timed stroke of the bladeā€”a seasoned Dragon Boat team can travel over the water at 10-13 feet per second.

Why is dragon boating becoming so popular? The success of the sport has much to do with its low cost, the ease of getting started in the sport, and the uncanny ability of the sport to bond together groups who train together.


The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is typically 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 sweep (a steerer) at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats however vary in length and the crew size will change accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers up to the traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and sweep. In the area around the Tian He District of Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, the paddlers will increase to 80 or more.


The pulsation of the drum beats produced by the drummer may be considered the "heartbeat" of the dragon boat. The drummer leads the paddlers throughout a race using the rhythmic drum beat to indicate the frequency and synchronicity of all the paddlers' strokes (that is, the cadence, picking up or accelerating the pace, slowing the rate, etc.) The drummer may issue commands to the crew 

through a combination of hand signals and voice calls, and also generally exhorts the crew to perform at their peak. A drummer is mandatory during racing events, but if he or she is not present during training, it is typical for the sweep to direct the crew. The drummer's role is both tactical and ceremonial, unlike that of a coxswain of a rowing shell such as an 'eight'. Whereas paddlers face forward and the drummer backwards, it is reversed in rowing shells where all the rowers face backwards with the coxswain the only one in the boat facing forward and able to view the straight ahead course of the craft as it makes its way down the regatta course lane towards the finish line.

Good drummers should be able to synchronize the drumming cadence with the strokes of the leading pair of paddlers, rather than the other way around. As a tail wind, head wind or cross wind, may affect the amount of power needed to move the boat at hull speed throughout a race, a caller should also be aware of the relative position of the dragon boat to other boats, and to the finish line, in order to correctly issue commands to the crew as to when to best surge ahead, when to hold steady and when to peak for the finish. An expert level caller will be able to gauge the power of the boat and the paddlers through the sensation of acceleration, deceleration, and inefficiencies which are transmitted through the hull (i.e. they will physically feel the boat action through their feet and glutenous maxi mus muscles).

Traditional dragon boats with 40 to 50 paddlers are so long that the drum is positioned amidships (in the middle of the boat) so that all paddlers can hear it a midst the noise of heated competition. However, for the smaller dragon boats of 20 paddlers which are most often used in competitive sporting events, the drum is located just aft of the dragon headed prow.

Some crews may also feature a gong striker who strikes a ceremonial gong mounted aboard the dragon boat. A gong striker may sometimes be used as an alternative to a drummer.


The paddlers sit facing forwards (unlike aft-facing seated rowers), and use a specific type of paddle which (unlike a rowing oar or sculling scull) is not rigged to the racing watercraft in any way. Therefore, Dragon boaters are paddlers not rowers or oarsmen/women. They paddle in a general canoe style since canoes dragon boats, proa's and rafts are all distinctly differing paddle craft all paddled similarly variations exist due to the size and seating position in the boat (Note that the sweep is not a helmsman or 'coxswain', which are British-based naval and competitive rowing terms (coxswain is also a Canadian War Canoe racing term) for the person in charge of the boat. In dragon boating, the drummer takes charge, however if there is only a sweep and no drummer, the sweep generally takes charge.)

The paddle now accepted by the world racing federation has a standardized fixed blade surface area and distinctive shape derived from the paddle shapes characteristic of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) delta region of Guangdong Province, China, close to where Hong Kong is situated. The PS202 pattern blade has straight flared edges and circular arced shoulders based geometrically on an equilateral triangle shape positioned between the blade face and the neck of the shaft.

The leading pair of paddlers, called "pacers," "strokes" or "timers," set the pace for the team. 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 sweep, rather than by the paddlers while actually racing, however for docking and other man-oeuvres individual paddlers may be asked to paddle (while others either stop the boat or rest) according to the commands given by the drummer or sweep. The two lead strokes are responsible for synchronizing their strokes together with one another.

There are several components to a dragon boat stroke cycle:

1. The "reach and catch" begins the cycle and is preceded by a set-up torso rotation; the blade angle of attack (angle of entry relative to the water plane) appears from the side to be raked aft, however this is an optical illusion since the boat is advancing. Inserting the blade perpendicular to the water amounts to ineffective "lily dipping" or "tea-bagging" wherein the blade moves backwards in the water past the paddler's hips simply because the boat is moving forward.

A common misunderstanding is the "upper arm drive". In dragon boating the top arm's main role is to keep the paddle in place and not lose pressure by wobbling or go in a slant. Some think that the "push" allows an explosive de-rotation, but in fact it is simply an illusion that an otherwise under-used top arm is being useful. Pushing the top hand down changes the paddle entry angle to neutral in most applications of the stroke; the only plausible point where the top arm can participate in the stroke is perhaps after the bottom arm has initiated the pull and the paddle face is at or past the paddler's knee, to add a "kick" towards the back of the stroke. Over usage of the top arm to drive down will also result in excessive up-down movement on the boat and disturb its glide. A possible source of this misunderstanding is from kayaking sports, where the paddle design allows for both sides of the body to be integral to the stroke; the forward rotation of the "top arm" allows for both a return on one side and de-rotation of the other. It is also worth noting that in kayaking, given the paddler's position on the entry of the blade (the shaft is across the kayak), it is possible to have the top arm participate without having excessive downward force. There is significant difference between the downward force of a paddler's weight being transferred from body to paddle, and the force of the paddler's top arm prematurely de-rotating the paddler's body.

2. The powerful "pull" stage (photo) sustains the forward momentum of the boat; the paddle is pulled backwards.

3. The "release" in which the blade is instantaneously drawn (skywards) while it is even with the hips of the paddler; because the boat is moving forward, the optical illusion from outside the boat makes the blade seem like it is being withdrawn at an angle that is raked forward. The release coincides with the set up rotation or recoil of the torso.

Pull stage of the stroke

4. The "recovery" is the final stage of the stroke and consists of the rotation of the torso with the forward re-positioning of the blade thrust forward into the optimal catch. By decreasing the time it takes between the release and the catch, the percentage of time in the cycle when the boat is decelerating (due to drag friction among other slowing forces) is minimized therefore it is possible to perform a greater number of catches and pulls over a given race distance. The reduction in swing time (the duration that the paddle swings forward through the air) is achieved through active rather than relaxed re-positioning of the blade forward and by reducing the weight of the paddle.

A key aspect is for the blade and shaft to be outboard and as vertical as possible in orientation. This means that the paddler has to lean part of his or her body outboard in order to maintain optimal paddle attitude. If this is properly executed at the catch, then the gravitational weight of the paddler "falling" on and driving the blade will generate an enormous impulse power that is not otherwise achievable, similar to a "high brace" type of paddle technique used in white water rafting and sea kayaking.

If paddlers are not synchronized to the two lead strokes, for example if a pair of paddlers takes their cue from the pair of paddlers sitting immediately in front of them, then each successive pair of blades hits the water a fraction of a second behind the blade just in front of them. Consequently, the stroke and back paddlers are out of sync or phase, similar to a domino effect or cascade/card deck riffle. So to an onshore observer, this effect resembles the movement of a many-legged caterpillar or centipede. A coach may therefore have to work with a team to minimize this "caterpillar" effect. During a race it can be difficult for novice crews to stay in sync within their own boat as the sounds of other drums can be distracting.

Very experienced paddlers sense the response of the boat to the application of their blades and the associated surging forward acceleration or deceleration during a prolonged recovery phase through the water via their senses as they sit braced into the boat sitting on the benches of the boat, and will continually adjust or tune their reach and catch of their blade tips in accordance with the power required to maintain continual acceleration of the hull through the water at any given moment, since boats seek to decelerate whenever propulsive power drops off.

Sweep or Steersman

The sweep, known also as the steersman controls the dragon boat with a sweep oar rigged at the rear of the boat, generally on the side and off center which is used both for ruddering as well as for sweeping the stern side-wards The word "starboard" is Scandinavian in origin and refers to the wooden board for steer(ing), that is, the sweep oar. On some sailboats, an arm attached to a rudder is used to control the 

rudder and is known as a "tiller". Dragon boaters in Portland OR USA first used Taiwanese dragon boats fitted with sweep oars for steering that were mounted over the center line or keel line of the boat, rather than of to the side and off center They referred to these center mounted sweep oars as "tillers" (even though they were really sweep oars) and the people who manned them also as "tiller men". However, the sweep oars are used for both ruddering and sweeping wherein the blade can come out of the water for an out of water recovery unlike a rudder to which a tiller control arm is secured. The term "tiller" is therefore misapplied.

Likewise, "coxswain" (pronounced cox'n), "cox" and "helmsman" are terms originally used in the British navy (like boatswain pronounced bosun) to refer to the person in charge of a small boat and this person was not necessarily the sweep or person at the rear steering the boat. This term was then transferred to the person in a sport rowing shell who called the stroke. On a dragon boat, it is the drummer who calls the stroke, though if there is no drummer aboard, the task can be transferred to the sweep. Some crews, particularly those from outside Asia, trivialize the role of the drummer, but both traditional and international competition officials call for an active role by the drummer, not decorative. So coxswain is not a really appropriate term, just as tiller is not. In Canadian war canoe racing, the sweep is in charge of the boat and is referred to as a coxswain.The responses of the boat to the sweep oar are opposite to the direction of the oar grip - if the sweep pulls the oar grip right, or into the boat where the sweep is mounted on the port quarter (left rear), then the boat will turn left, and if it is pushed out, or left, the boat turns right. During a race, an experienced sweep in a well balanced boat (paddle power wise) will be able to steer the dragon boat with the sweep oar out of the water or with only minimal blade area immersed to minimize drag.

The sweep must constantly be aware of the boat's surroundings. Since the sweep is the only person in the boat who is able to control the boat looking forward (the drummer is seated facing backward) he or she has the obligation to override the caller at any time during the race (or the coach during practice) if the safety of the crew is threatened in any way such as an impending collision with another boat or a fixed or floating obstruction in the water.

The international standard racing rules call for each boat to steer down the center of their respective lane and to not ride the bow wave (wash ride) of a boat in an adjacent lane by coming alongside to take advantage of the bow wave induced surface current. Wash riding is considered to be illegal under international competition regulations and is subject to sanction by referees or course umpires.