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Dragon boat - Cantonese.JPG
Dragon boat
Traditional Chinese 龍舟
Simplified Chinese 龙舟
alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 龍船
Simplified Chinese 龙船

A dragon boat (also dragonboat) is a very long and narrow canoe-style human-powered boat. It is now used in the team paddling sport of dragon boat racing which originated in China over 2000 years ago. While competition has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of folk ritual, it emerged in modern times as an international "sport" in Hong Kong in 1976. For competition events, dragon boats are generally rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. At other times the decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for training purposes. In some areas of China, the boats are raced without dragon adornments.

Dragon boat races are traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Festival observance in China. 19th century European observers of the racing ritual, not understanding the significance of Duan Wu, referred to the spectacle as a "dragon boat festival". This is the term that has become known in the West.

Dragonboat festival racing, like Duanwu, is observed and celebrated in many areas of east Asia with significant populations of ethnic Chinese living there e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, and Greater China. The date is referred to as the "double fifth" since Duanwu is reckoned as the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which often falls on the Gregorian calendar month of June, but also rarely May or July. This is because Duanwu is reckoned annually in accordance with the traditional calendar system of China, which is a combination of solar and lunar cycles, unlike the Gregorian calendar system.

In December 2007, the Chinese government added Duanwu, Qingming and Mid-Autumn festivals to the schedule of national holidays observed in the People's Republic of China, such is the importance of dragonboating to the Chinese today.


The crew of the dragon boat

Dragon boat in Friedrichstadt, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is around 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 or tiller(helm) at the rear of the boat, although for races it is common to have just 18 paddlers. Dragon boats vary in length and crew size will vary accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers, up to the massive traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and sweep. For example, in the area around the Tian He District of Guangzhou, Guangdong,China, the paddlers will increase to nearly 80 or more.


The drummer and drumming

The drummer or caller may be considered the "heartbeat" of the dragon boat, and leads the crew throughout a race with the rhythmic beating of a drum to indicate the timing and frequency of paddling strokes (that is, the cadence, picking up the pace, slowing the rate, etc.) The caller 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 caller/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.

Good callers 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 gluteus maximus muscles).

Traditional dragonboats 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 amidst 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, paddle and paddling

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 and the sweep may both take 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 standardised, 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 synchronised. Each paddler should synchronise 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 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 sweep. The two lead strokes are responsible for synchronising their strokes together with one another.

There are several components to a dragon boat stroke cycle:

- 1a. 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 forward. 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 advancing forward.

- 1b. The associated upper arm "drive" the instant the blade face is fully immersed and which is the key to powerful acceleration of the boat and the beginning of the pull; if the drive begins before the blade face is fully immersed, there is a significant decrease in stroke efficiency; this drive is initiated by an explosive de-rotation of the torso. A sign of the drive beginning before the blade face is completely immersed is a splash at the front of the stroke, similar to that when a hand slaps still water.

- 2. The associated, powerful "pull" stage sustains the forward momentum of the boat that was initiated by the "drive" impulse; the paddle is pulled backwards.

- 3. The "release" in which the blade is instantaneously drawn upwards (skywards) while it is even with NOT BEHIND 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.

- 4. The "recovery" is the final stage of the stroke and consists of the rotation of the torso with the ACTIVE forward repositioning 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 minimised; 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 repositioning 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. It 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 synchronised 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 synch 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 minimise 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. Humans sense and gauge acceleration and deceleration, that is CHANGE in speed, more so than constant speed, as if their inner ears act like a kind of accelerometer.

The sweep, sweep oar and sweeping

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 centre, which is used both for ruddering as well as for sweeping the stern sidewards. 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 centre line or keel line of the boat, rather than of to the side and off centre. They referred to these centre-mounted sweep oars as "tillers" (even though they were really sweep oars) and the people who manned them also as "tillermen". 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.

Disambiguation: 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, trivialise 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 minimise 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 con the boat looking forward (the drummer is seated facing backward or aft) 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 centre of her respective lane and to not ride the bow wave (wash ride) of a boat in an adjacent lane by coming along side close aboard to take advantage of the bow wave induced surface current. Wash riding is considered to be cheating under international competition regulations and is subject to sanction by on water referees or course umpires.

Taiwanese finish line flags and flag pullers

A Song Dynasty (circa 1000 AD) silk painting depicts an imperial dragon boat competition that took place then in the ancient Chinese capital of Kaifeng. It shows dragon boats, referee boats, marked racing lanes, spectators, streamers, flags and banners and race officials. Since there were no "photofinish cameras" at the time, close races were adjudicated by a panel of judges who observed which crew was the first to pull, grasp or grab a flag that rested on a buoy positioned at the finish line for each racing lane. There was nothing to "catch" since nothing was "thrown".

Floor-to-ceiling high photographic enlargements of Song Dynasty paintings of dragonboat races are displayed on the walls of the "Golden Ocean" Chinese seafood restaurant in Vancouver Canada, for example (in the Kerrisdale district on 49th Avenue east of West Boulevard). These historical Song illustrations inspired some dragon boat race organizers in Taipei Taiwan to replicate flag pulling finish line markers in their annual races, the only place in Asia where this particular, and peculiar form of racing apparatus can be found.

This competition arrangement gave rise to an additional crew position, that of the flag puller. The flag puller rides aboard near the decorated dragon head, out of the way of the drummer. As the boat nears the finish line flag float, the flag puller extends his or her arm outboard to grab the flag from the lane float to signal attainment of the finish line as the boat whizzes by. The steerer has to accurately steer to boat within arms reach of the flag mount. Electronic devices are sometimes used to accurately capture times. The flag puller must not miss pulling the flag, otherwise the boat's finish is disqualified. The incongruous English term "flag catcher" seems to have been perpetrated and perpetuated by American Dragon Boat Association racers based in the state of Iowa, since the Chinese character doesn't translate to "catcher" but rather "puller" or "grabber".

Dragon boats versus canoes and rowboats

A dragon boat is actually a type of canoe, they are both paddle-craft rather than rowing-craft, and crew members paddle rather than "row". Dragon boat paddlers sit, crouch or stand facing forward in the direction of travel, i.e. facing the prow (front) of the boat, similar to crews in other paddling craft, whereas rowers sit facing backwards. Furthermore, the oars and sweeps manned by rowers are connected to their shells, whereas dragon boat paddles and all canoe forms are freely held. People who paddle dragon boats may also be involved with outrigger canoe racing or War Canoe racing due to some similarities in training regimes and sporting ethos. But all are different, distinctive sports, with Outrigging and Dragonboating having significant cultural, ceremonial and religious aspects inherent to competition, aspects which are absent in canoe and kayak racing.

Canoes are derived from hollowed out tree trunks (either single log, or single log supported by one or a pair of outrigged float pontoons or else catamaran style double logs.); or from birch and other deciduous tree bark shells stretched over wooden frames. Traditional wooden dragon boats, however, derive from rafts of three lashed-together logs which have been hollowed out and are like bamboo rafts consisting of lashed, hollow bamboo stalks which can still be seen in China today. It is the three large, lashed, rafted logs of old that give the Hong Kong style of dragon boats its characteristic hull form cross section underwater seen today, which is like a "W". The keel (plank) is higher than the two outboard chines formed by the rail planks, so a kind of tunnel effect running down the centreline (keel) of the boat is present due to this construction and design. The traditional wooden boats are slender and heavy, typically weighing in at approximately 1,750 pounds, plus the detachable head and tail parts of the boat. As the sport of dragon boating has increased in popularity and spread to countries outside of Asia, many countries have switched to using the fibreglass dragon boats, which are significantly lighter, and usually also have separate, detachable pieces for the dragon head and tail.

In 2006, the executive committee of the GAISF General Association of International Sport Federations accepted the application of the International Dragon Boat Federation as being the sole world sporting federation that organises and recognises the majority of the world's dragon boat crews from 60-plus countries. In the 2007 GAISF Congress convened in Beijing, the majority of the membership of the GAISF (that is, world sport federations, some of which are also members of the International Olympic Committee IOC) voted to ratify the decision of the executive committee in recognising the IDBF as representing a paddle sport that is separate from other paddle sports such as kayaking, canoeing and outrigger canoeing. IDBF being elected into membership of the GAISF by the majority of the world's sport federations already in membership of the GAISF paves the way for the IDBF to seek membership in the IOC separate from the world federation for canoe racing. IDBF's membership application had been previously blocked by the GAISF member representing canoe and kayak racing, an international sporting association that originated early in the 20th century, following the development of canoe sport in the late 19th century and which claimed to automatically control the boat races which existed for more than a thousand years prior, despite not having organised any competitions or promoted the activity until only very recently and some 15 years after the international modern sport was already being organised and promoted by dragon boat specialists with the assistance of the rowing fraternity.

History and culture of dragon boat racing

Similar to outrigger canoe (va'a) racing but unlike competitive rowing and canoe racing, dragon boating has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions. In other words, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex of watercraftsmanship.

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by modern scholars, sinologists and anthropologists - for example Joseph Needham and George Worcester, author of Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River—to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, along the banks of such iconic rivers as the Chang Jiang, also known as Yangtze (that is, during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia). Dragon boat racing as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations, and for the traditional veneration of the Asian dragon water deity, has been practiced continuously since this period. The celebration is an important part of ancient agricultural Chinese society, celebrating the summer rice harvest. Dragonboat racing activity historically was situated in the Chinese sub-continent's southern-central "rice bowl": where there were rice paddies, so were there dragonboats.

There are long paddled boats depicted on ancient Dong Son drums from the southern China (Yunnan Province) and Anam / Viet Nam region. Comparable watercraft are shown in bas relief carvings at the Angkor Wat a world heritage site in Cambodia.

Contemporary folk tradition commonly attributes dragon boating's origins to the saving of a drowning folk hero, Qu Yuan. But dragon boats are raced in some parts of China where this legendary figure is not venerated and revered, and the competitions predate the Qu Yuan legend itself, a tale which emerged only in the Han Dynasty, as listed in Sima Qian's work, Record of the Grand Historian. Qu Yuan and his resurrection following his suicidal drowning in the Miluo River to protest political corruption can also be regarded on a sociological level as a kind of fertility god for ensuring good rice crop harvests, giving rise to annual re-enactments by the agrarian societies living in the rice-reaping regions of ancient China. Rice seedlings are annually 'drowned' underwater in the rice paddies, and this is annually symbolized by Qu Yuan's watery demise during the Duan Wu Jie.

The Heavenly or Celestial Dragon

The dragon plays the most venerated role within the Chinese mythological tradition. For example, of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac the only mythical creature is the dragon. The rest are not mythical (e.g. dog, rat, tiger, horse, snake, rabbit, rooster, monkey, sheep, ox, pig - all of which are familiar to agrarian peasants.) Dragons are traditionally believed to be the rulers of rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and the rains of heaven. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition.

It is believed sacrifices were involved in the earliest boat racing rituals. During these ancient times, violent clashes between the crew members of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo stalks. Originally, paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water could receive no assistance from the onlookers as their misfortune was considered to be the will of the Dragon Deity which could not be interfered with. Those boaters who drowned were thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning speaks to this early notion.

Dragon boat racing traditionally coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as "Duan Wu". Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place.

This season is also associated with pestilence and disease, so is considered as a period of evil due to the high summer temperatures which can lead to rot and putrification in primitive societies lacking modern refrigeration and sanitation facilities. One custom involves cutting shapes of the five poisonous or venomous animals out of red paper, so as to ward off these evils. The paper snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and toads - those that supposedly lured "evil spirits" - where sometimes placed in the mouths of the carved wooden dragons.

Venerating the Dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was "The Dragon" or the "Son of Heaven", and Chinese people refer to themselves as "dragons" because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying.

Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). At festivals today, a VIP can be invited to step forward to touch the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint in order to reanimate the creature's bold spirit for hearty racing.

Qu Yuan

The other main legend concerns the poignant saga of a Chinese court official named Qu Yuan, also phoneticised Ch'u Yuen. It is said that he lived in the pre-imperial Warring States period (475-221 BC). During this time the area today known as central China was divided into seven main states or kingdoms battling among themselves for supremacy with unprecedented heights of military intrigue. This was at the conclusion of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty, which is regarded as China's classical age during which Confucius (Kongfuzi) lived. Also, the author Sun Tzu is said to have written his famous classic on military strategy The Art of War during this era.

Qu Yuan is popularly regarded as a minister in one of the Warring State governments, the southern state of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces), a champion of political loyalty and integrity, and eager to maintain the Chu state's autonomy and hegemony. Formerly, it was believed that the Chu monarch fell under the influence of other corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan as 'a sting in flesh', and therefore the fooled king banished Qu, his most loyal counsellor.

In Qu's exile, so goes the legend, he supposedly produced some of the greatest early poetry in Chinese literature expressing his fervent love for his state and his deepest concern for its future. The collection of odes are known as the Chuci or "Songs of the South (Chu)". His most well known verses are the rhapsodic Li Sao or "Lament" and the fantastic Tien Wen or "Heavenly Questions".

In the year 278 B.C., upon learning of the upcoming devastation of his state from invasion by a neighbouring Warring State (Qin in particular), Qu is said to have waded into the Miluo river which drains into Dongting Hu (lake) in today's Hunan Province—near the provincial capital city of Changsha and south of the city of Yueyang on Donting Hu, site of the first IDBF World Dragon Boat Championship in 1996—holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era. The Qin or Chin kingdom eventually conquered all of the other states including Chu and unified them into the first Chinese empire. The word China derives from this first dynasty of empire, the Qin (or Chin) Dynasty, under imperialist unifier Qin Shi Huang.

The common people, upon learning of his suicide, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperatedly to save Qu Yuan. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish, in order to prevent the fishes from devouring the poet's body.

However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends (that is, he resurrected from the dead) and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as zongzi or sticky rice wrapped in leaves, although they are wrapped in leaves instead of silk. In commemoration of Qu Yuan it is said, people hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.

Today, dragon boat festivals continue to be celebrated around the world with dragon boat racing, although such events are still culturally associated with the traditional Chinese Duen Ng Festival in Hong Kong (Cantonese Chinese dialect) or Duan Wu festival in south central mainland China (Mandarin Chinese dialect).

Dragon boat racing as a modern sport

Dragon boats racing to reach the finish line in Hong Kong

Modern dragon boat racing is organised at an international level by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). The IDBF, a Member of the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) recognises two types of Dragon Boat Racing activities, namely Sport racing, as practised by IDBF member organisations; and Festival racing, which are the more traditional and informal types of races, organised around the world, where racing rules vary from event to event.

  • Sport racing distances are normally over 200 m or 250 m, 500 m, 1000 m and 2000 m, with formal Rules of Racing.
  • A festival race is typically a sprint event of several hundred metres, with 500 metres being a standard distance in many international festival races.

There are also some very long endurance events, such as the Three Gorges Dam Rally along the Yangtze River (or Chang Jiang) near Yichang, Hubei province, China, which covers up to 100 kilometres and the Ord River marathon in Australia which covers over 50 kilometres. There is even a frozen mist and ice winter time dragon boat racing event held in Jilin, a city and province north of Beijing.

Multi-sport games

Vancouver dragon boat event principals were invited by the Hong Kong High Commission to produce a combined dragons by land (dragon dance) and by sea (dragonboat race) cultural celebration at the XIV Commonwealth Games in 1995 in Victoria BC's Inner Harbour as a way to mark the official farewell of Hong Kong from the Commonwealth of Nations, since the territory was to be repatriated to Chinese rule (from British) in 1997.

Beijing's summer games in 2008 featured dragon boating in a couple of significant ways. (Wushu or Chinese martial arts was the 'cultural sport' at this Olympics. Note that the last 'demonstration sports' to be officially demonstrated were more than ten years ago, at the 1996 games in Atlanta.) First, the Olympic Torch was transported by dragon boat during one of the legs in Hong Kong. Second, one of the sequences in the Opening Ceremonies featured Chinese maritime achievements and included stylised dragon boat paddlers manipulating extremely tall, artistic paddles.

Dragon boat events feature in the programs of the Asian Games, the Southeast Asian Games, the Asian Beach Games and the Asian DB Federation is recognised by the Olympic Council for Asia.


Due to the long history of dragon boat racing in China, participants in cultural and sport racing events there today number some 20 million people (on a population base of over 1 billion). Over the past 30 years since 1976, and especially since the formation of the IDBF and its Continental Federations for Asia and Europe in the early 1990s, dragon boating as a sport with regularised rules and equipment has rapidly spread beyond Asia to Europe, North and South America, Australia and Africa, becoming a popular international sport for a growing global base of participants.

The Hong Kong Tourism Bureau (formerly Hong Kong Tourist Association) helped move dragon boat racing into the modern era by organising the first international races back in 1976 and eventually by facilitating the donation of teak dragon ambassadors to countries around the world, starting in 1980 when three boats were sent to London England, for the Chinese Festival on the River Thames. The following year two HK style boats were sent to Germany. Six went to Vancouver in 1986 for Expo.

Today, dragon boat racing (sport and festival) is among the fastest growing of team water sports, with scores of thousands of participants in various organisations and clubs in over 60 countries – 62 of which are IDBF members (as of 8 Jan 2009). The sport is recognised for the camaraderie, strength and endurance fostered amongst participants, and it has also become a very popular corporate and charitable sport.

Canadian experience

In 1986, six boats were donated to the city of Vancouver, Canada for use at Expo 86, the world exposition on transportation, during Hong Kong Day celebrations on central False Creek. The Chinese Cultural Centre Dragon Boat Association (DBA, but initially a committee of the CCC) was therefore formed to put on the first races in Canada to use authentic dragon boats as the Chinese community's centennial project. (Vancouver turned 100 in 1986 and scores of community groups organised official centennial projects). Mason Hung of the HKTA and currently IDBF Senior Vice President (2008) travelled to Vancouver in 1985 to advise the CCC race committee on organising the inaugural competition, as he had been instrumental in developing the HK International DB Races (IDBR) throughout the 1980s.

In 1996 the first IDBF Club Crew World Championships was convened in Vancouver, on the 10th anniversary of the introduction of dragon boat racing to Canada. Ten years later in 2006, Toronto hosted the 5th IDBF Club Crew World Championships on the 20th anniversary year of dragonboating in Canada. Some of Vancouver's and Toronto's dragon boat volunteers were instrumental in helping to establish the 'first generation' of Canadian festivals that had the support of the local Chinese business communities: in Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, Kelowna, Ottawa, Montreal, London and Kingston.

But even as early as 1945, Canada was "infected" with a mild case of "dragon fever". The Vancouver Sun newspaper dated 10 October 1945 (10th day of the 10th month), contains a story and picture of a dragon-adorned silver plaque presented to the Mayor of Vancouver by representatives of the republican government of China immediately following cessation of hostilities of World War II in the Pacific. The news story explains that because Vancouver was the North American gateway to Asia, it could be considered as the ideal city to host the first dragon boat race outside of Asia. The proposed post war dragon boat festival was compared to the Mardi Gras of New Orleans. Since 1946 was to be the Diamond Jubilee (60th Anniversary) of the city, it was suggested that a dragon boat festival be convened to mark this occasion. However, this would have to wait until the city's 100th anniversary in 1986 and the world transportation exposition.

In 1992, the (final) British Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patton, presented a teak dragonboat to the Canadian Prime Minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, to mark the close cultural, social and business ties between Hong Kong and Canada. This craft is now part of the permanent collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull Quebec. Canada reciprocated by presenting a carved cedar totem pole crafted by British Columbia First Nations (aboriginal) members. This symbol of friendship is displayed in a park in Hong Kong. So two hand-crafted wooden cultural icons were exchanged between these two Asia Pacific nations.

Several of the larger dragon boat events outside Asia include the Vancouver International Dragon Boat Festival (a.k.a. Rio Tinto and Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival), British Columbia province; Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, Ontario province; and the National Capital Dragon Boat Race Festival Ottawa, Ontario province. These three Canadian festivals each feature some 200 crews and all are held on weekends close to the June Summer Solstice, in keeping with traditional Chinese dragon boat traditions.

European experience

European competition is just as varied with many national bodies aligned to the European Federation (EDBF) and IDBF, running competitions attended by many crews during the summer season. Attempts by the EDBF to establish a cross-border European club league in recent years have not taken seed, and most events continue to be organised under the auspices of the national governing bodies.

The British National League and UK national championships are run by the British Dragon Boat Racing Association (BDA). The championship is the culmination of a season following the National League series of nine races held between May and September. The number of competitive paddlers in the UK is however dwarfed by the increasing number of - generally charity and corporate - participants taking part in events, often with fund raising as a secondary aims. For example, on Bewl Water in Kent, the Bewl Water Dragon Boat Festival now involves around 1,200 competitors annually and in 2006 raised £165,000.

In Europe, the largest dragon boat festival is held in Malmo, Sweden, where over 200 crews — 4,000 participants — take part in the Malmo Festival which lasts over a week. There is additionally a very active charity circuit operating on a more ad hoc basis throughout Europe.

United States experience

Established events include the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festivals in Boston, Massachusetts and New York (city, Queens), and the Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race in Portland, Oregon. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania hosted the IDBF World Championships in 2001 and since then has established an annual festival, with over 150 teams participating in 2008 and 154 teams in 2009. The Philadelphia festival is held on the Schuylkill River, and attracts teams from all over the east coast. The Canadian company, Great White North, come every year to act as the Steers Person on the boat. Portland's festival hosts North America's largest Taiwanese-style boat races, involving flag grabbers. The California Dragon Boat Association (CDBA) hosts an international dragon boat race in San Francisco's scenic Treasure Island, attracting over 100 teams (adult, youth, and novice).

Orlando (Florida) International Dragon Boat Festival at the Walt Disney World Resort is slated for October in 2008. The event marks the first time for dragon boat racing to be presented in the context of a major world class amusement park/tourism industry property. The Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Races are held the first Saturday in May boasts 50–70 teams annually. Tampa will host the 2011 World Dragon Boat Racing Championships on Seddon Channel in downtown Tampa; a race in which Long Beach's teamLARD is the favorite to win pending on their participation.

African, Mideastern and Indian subcontinental experience
Latin American experience
Australian and Oceanian experience
The Sydney Dragon Blades racing at the Chinese New Year Championships at Darling Harbour

In Australia, due to the Southern Hemisphere seasons, the dragon boating season generally runs between late August to mid April. Around Australia, there are regular regattas held for dragon boat clubs to race each other, as well as annual competitions held for state representative crews to compete. Clubs who outperform others in their state also compete against other state's top crews at the National Titles. The 2010 Australian National Titles will be held in Adelaide, South Australia.

The premier club dragon boat events are usually held in the state of New South Wales, at Sydney's Darling Harbour (for the Chinese New Year Championship), as well as the Sydney International Regatta Centre, Penrith (NSW State Championships). The above-mentioned events attract the largest participation by clubs, crew numbers and spectators nationally. Other locations where regattas are held include the Middle Harbour in Roseville, as well as across NSW at Manning River in Taree, Lake Jindabyne, Lake Entrance and Grafton, as well as the Lake Burley-Griffin in the Australian Capital Territory.

In New Zealand, Dragonboating is a popular sport for many high school students. Most schools restrict entry into the school Dragonboating team for year 12 and 13 students only, as it is a physically demanding sport. Students must be apt swimmers and able to commit to trainings. Dragonboating takes place in the first term, when the weather is most suitable, and there are regional and national Dragonboating competitions.

Organizations, recognition and popular culture

The established International Federations for dragon boat sport are the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) and its Continental Federations, the European Dragon Boat Federation (EDBF) and the Asian Dragon Boat Federation (ADBF).

The IDBF is the recognised World Governing Body of Dragon Boat Sport and a Member of the GAISF (the General Association of International Sports Federations) which is part of the Olympic Movement. In being accepted for GAISF Membership, the GAISF Council have ruled that Dragon Boating and Canoeing are separate sports with their own historical and cultural backgrounds and identities.

The ICF (International Canoe Federation) has had a limited interest in Dragon Boat Sport since 2005 (some 3 decades following the start of the modern era of the international sport in Hong Kong), organising an annual Dragon Boat Championship only for the small number of its Member Canoe Federations, approx 10, with an interest in Dragon Boating. Therefore the IDBF classifies ICF Dragon Boating as 'Closed Competition'. Indeed, at the time when the IDBF was being founded in the late 1980s, the then-president of the ICF Sergio Orsi wished the federation organisers well in developing dragon boat racing as a separate entity.

The vast majority of financial and human capital to originate, develop, promote and sustain dragon boat racing on an international level is based within the dragonboat festival community, as pioneered by the mother of all dragon boat festivals, the HK IDBR. The most significant technical assistance in the early development years came mainly from the sport of rowing, and in the case of a couple of countries from the sport of canoeing. It should be noted however that dragon boat activity has and continues to grow worldwide under a widely ranging diversity of complimentary water sport such as clubs for yachting, rowing, sailing, canoeing, waterskiing, and outrigging.

IDBF member associations or federations have been established in 62 countries or territories, since 1991 (e.g. China DBA, Hong Kong DBA, Chinese Taipei DBA, Macau DBA, Singapore DBA, Australian DBF, United States DBF, Dragon Boat Canada, British DB Racing Association, Italian DBF, German DBA, Swiss DBA, South African DBA, Danish DBA, Chilean DBF, Uganda DBF, Trinidad & Tobago DBA) as well as many others and there are a further 15 other Countries known to the IDBF, with a developing interest in Dragon Boating.

The IDBF, whilst a Member of the GAISF, is not presently an Olympic Federation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) but will be applying for this status when it has the 75 Member Countries or Territories that meet the criteria needed for IOC recognition and inclusion in an Olympic Games. Some National Olympic Committees (NOC) have already accepted Dragon boat national organisation for national membership and the Olympic Council of Asia recognises the Asian Dragon Boat Federation (ADBF) as the IDBF Continental Federation with responsibility for Dragon Boat Sport in Asia.

In China, the origin of Dragon Boating, there is a clear position that Dragon Boat Sport is not a canoe sport, a position supported by the Chinese Olympic Committee; the GAISF Council and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). Dragon Boating, under the ADBF is now included in the East Asian Games; the South East Asian games, the Asian Beach Games and from 2010 the Asian Games. Although the dragon boat have received more and more acceptance from the government, the process of modernization and urbanization have an negative effect on the survival of the traditional dragon boat,which is owned by the patriarchal clans in villages around the cities. Not only the problem of pollution in the rivers have become more and more severe, but also the rivers in the villages have been filled and leveled up, the vivosphere of the traditional dragon boats has decraesed dramatically.

In December 2007, China added Duan Wu Jie (Solar Maximus Festival, a.k.a. dragon boat festival) to her schedule of official national annual holidays.

Over the past 5 decades, a number of countries have issued postage stamps commemorating Qu Yuan and dragon boat competitions in New Zealand (Wellington), Canada (Vancouver), China and Hong Kong SAR, among others.

'Celebrity' dragonboaters include HRH Prince William, who raced dragon boat while a student at Eton.

The Scouting movement has a "dragon boating badge".

Dragonboating and Olympic torch relays...

The first observed use of a dragon boat for the Olympic torch relay was for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. During the Sydney stage a Local Dragonboat club in Sydney, Dragon Sports Association (DSA) carried a torchbearer & Olympian along a section of the Parramatta River towards the Sydney Olympic Complex. For the full story refer to the DSA's document/download section [1].

During 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay, a dragon boat carried the torchbearer in the section on Shing Mun River, Shatin, Hong Kong (on date 2 May 2008). This had been never tried before in the history of Olympic torch relays.[1] One day later (on date 3 May 2008), the torch was again conveyed by dragon boat in the section of the relay of Lago Sai Van (English: Sai Van Lake), Macau.[2]

Racing events

The IDBF has organised World Nations Dragon Boat Racing Championships (WDBRC) for Representative National or Territorial teams every two years since 1995. In between world championship years, IDBF Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) are held for the world's top club-based crews.

In 2005 the IDBF introduced a Corporate and Community World Championships (WCorcom) designed for crews that normally race in Festival Races and aimed at the 'weekend warrior' type of competitor and not the elite International standard or serious Club Crew competitor.

In 2006 under the patronage of the IDBF, the 1st World Championships for Breast Cancer Survivors - the 'Pink Paddlers' were held in Singapore. The 2nd BCS World Championships will be held in Miami, Florida, USA in July 2009, in conjunction with the World Corcom Championships

2006 CCWC took place at the Western Beaches Watercourse, just off scenic Marilyn Bell Park in Toronto's west end. Spectators and dragon boat fans from across North America – and the world – came out to spend the day on Toronto's beautiful waterfront and cheer on their favourite Dragon Boat crews. Over 2000 competitors took part and the event generated over 2 million dollars Canadian for the local economy.

Both the ADBF and EDBF also hold National Team Championships on alternate years to the IDBF WDBRC and the EDBF have held Club Crew Championships since 1992.

IDBF Championships
Year Type Host City Country
1995 WDBRC1 Yueyang People's Republic of China China
1996 CCWC1 Vancouver Canada Canada
1997 WDBRC2 Hong Kong Hong Kong Hong Kong
1998 CCWC2 Wellington New Zealand New Zealand
1999 WDBRC3 Nottingham United Kingdom United Kingdom
2001 WDBRC4 Philadelphia United States United States
2002 CCWC3 Rome Italy Italy
2003 WDBRC5 Poznan[3] Poland Poland
2004 CCWC4 Cape Town South Africa South Africa
2004 WDBRC6 Shanghai[3] People's Republic of China China
2005 WDBRC7 Berlin Germany Germany
2006 CCWC5 Toronto Canada Canada
2007 WDBRC8 Sydney Australia Australia
2008 CCWC6 Penang Malaysia Malaysia
2009 WDBRC9 Prague[4] Czech Republic Czech Republic
2010 CCWC7 Macau Macau Macau
2011 WDBRC10 Tampa Bay United States USA
2012 CCWC8 Hong Kong Hong Kong Hong Kong
2013 WDBRC11 Tehran Iran Iran

International 'festival' dragon boat races

The oldest International Festival Races are those held in Hong Kong annually. The Hong Kong Tourism Bureau conducted HKIR in 1976, which are acknowledged as starting the modern era of the dragon boat sport.[5]

The biggest dragon boat festival racing events outside of Asia are in Europe, particularly in Malmö, Sweden and in North America, in the USA and Canada. San Francisco, Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal each host races featuring more than 180 25-person crews. These races take place over two days in mid-to-late June in correspondence with the 5th Day of the 5th Month custom.

Areas where the sport is growing steadily include Australia, where the Chinese New Year Championship in Darling Harbour, Sydney, attracts about 60 22-person crews annually, with an upward trend in participation. This Championship is the largest dragon boat event in the Southern Hemisphere.

See also


  1. ^ "Crowds Cheer Olympic Torch in Hong Kong". The Wall Street Journal. 2 May 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2008. 
  2. ^ "Criminals see gold at Olympics". Toronto Star. 4 May 2008. Retrieved 12 May 2008. 
  3. ^ a b The 5th World Championships were originally to be held in Shanghai, but were postponed due the outbreak of SARS. As a result, World Championships were held in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
  4. ^ The 2009 World Championships were originally to be held in Poznan, but moved to Prague due to conflicted scheduling with the 2009 World Rowing Championships.
  5. ^ "Dragon Boating Not Just for Asians". AsianWeek. Retrieved on 3 October 2008.

External links

International governing organisations

National governing organisations


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