Dragon Boat

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Dragon boat - Cantonese.JPG

A Dragon boat (Template:Zh-tsp) is a very long and narrow human powered boat used in the team paddling sport or Dragon boat racing which originated in China.

For racing events, dragon boats are always rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails and are required to carry a large drum aboard. At other times the decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for training purposes.

Dragon boat races are traditionally held to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, making dragonboating the only sport to be celebrated as a national holiday. The Chinese calendar date is 5/5 which usually corresponds to a date in June.


The crew of the dragon boat

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 steerer 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 steerer.

The drummer and drumming

The drummer or callers 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 steerer 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 (ie. 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

The paddlers sit facing forwards, and use a specific type of paddle. 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 paddler in diagonally in front of them. This ensures that the paddling pace is balanced and all energy is spent on moving the boat forward. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the helm, not the paddlers. The lead paddlers are responsible for synchronizing themselves.

There are several components to a dragon boat or outrigger stroke: 1. The "catch" at the front of the 60 degree negative angle allows the paddler to bury their blade deep in the water. 2. The "pull" stage generates the power to move the boat, most often by using the strong muscles of the back to propell the boat beyond the paddle. 3. The "release" or "return" is the final stage of the stroke. To release, the outside arm should slightly bend and the blade should release to the top of the stroke. It is important for the blade to return as vertically as possible, with the top hand staying outside the boat. Each of these components of the stroke are equally important and must be done in synchronization with the paddle across and in front. If done correctly, all paddles will be in time with the lead strokes.

If paddlers are not synchronized, each successive pair of blades hits the water a fraction of a second behind the blades in front of them. To an onshore observer, this effect resembles the movement of a many-legged caterpillar or centipede; thus, a coach may discipline a team for "caterpillaring." During a race it is difficult to stay in sync as the sounds of other drums make it confusing or unreliable to time off the drum beat.

Very experienced paddlers will feel the response of the boat and its surge or resistance through the water via the blades of their paddles, and will adjust their reach, and the catch of their blade tips, in accordance with the power required to match the acceleration of the hull through the water at any given moment.

The steerer

The steerer, known also as the coxswain, helm, steersman, sweep, or tiller, controls the dragon boat with a steering oar similar in function to a tiller which is mounted at the rear of the boat. The steerer may work with the drummer to call out commands during a race. The responses of the oar are opposite to the direction they take - if the steerer pulls the oar right, or into the boat, the boat will turn left, and if they push out, or left, the boat turns right. The steerer has the power to override the caller at any time during the race (or the coach during practise) if the safety of the crew is threatened in any way.

Taiwanese flag catchers

A Taiwanese style Flag Catching dragon boat during a Dragon Boat Festival in Portland, OR

Another dragon boat crew position which was first popularized on the island of Taiwan and which remains very popular there is the flag puller or flag catcher, who is tasked with grabbing a lane flag as the boat crosses the finish line. The first boat to pull their flag wins the race, while any boats which miss their flag are penalized. The flag catcher normally sits behind the drummer, but as the boat approachers the finish line the flag catcher moves into position onto the top of the dragon head (see photo).

In historical times before the introduction of photo finishes and digital timing, or simply where such facilities are not available, flag catching is useful for distinguishing very close finishes (presumably an odd number of judges can decide the winner where multiple flags are caught very close together). A Song Dynasty landscape painting on silk records a dragon boat festival race on an imperial lake featuring flag pulling dragon boat races.

Dragon Boats versus Canoes and Rowboats

Although a dragon boat is not 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, ie. 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 are freely held. The large sweep oar of the dragon boat located in the stern for steering is often connected to the hull as well, with Taiwan again being the exception; there, the steerer will often use his oar to propel the boat forward in addition to using it to steer. People who paddle dragon boats may also be involved with outrigger canoe racing or War Canoe(or the sporting clubs of which they are members may provide both disciplines), due to some similarities in training regimes and sporting ethos.

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 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 Hongkong 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 wide and heavy, typically weighing in at approximately 1,750 pounds, and the head and tail are all part of the boat itself. As the sport of dragon boating has increased in popularity and spread to countries outside of Asia, many countries have switched to using the newer fiberglass dragon boats, which are cheaper, narrower, significantly lighter, and usually have a separate, detachable piece for the dragon's head and tail.

History and Culture of Dragon Boat Racing

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by modern scholars, sinologists and anthropologists 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. They first used a "dragon boat" to save a local scholar from drowning in the river and went to save his life. They now honour this feat on (or around) the 5/5 every year (Lunar Calendar).

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 (eg. 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, sometimes human, 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 June 21 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-energizing 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

Main article: Qu Yuan

The other main legend concerns the poignant saga of a famous Chinese patriot poet named Qu Yuan, also known as 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 period, which is regarded as China's classical age during which Kongzi (Confucius) lived. Also, the author Sunzi (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 hegenomy. Formerly, it was believed that the Chu king 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. However, modern analysis of Qu's literature suggests that Qu and the King were homosexual lovers, and therefore his dismissal from the imperial court and subsequent suicide were actually due the end of this relationship.<ref>http://www.singpao.com/20060704/feature/854548.html.</ref>

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 in today's Hunan Province 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 and unified them into the first Chinese empire. The word China derives from Chin.

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 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 Tuen 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

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 kilometers


Due to the long history of dragon boat racing in China, participants in cultural and racing events there number some 50 million people (on a population base of over 1 billion souls). Over the past 25 years, and especially since the formation of the IDBF and its Continental Federations for Asia and Europe (see below), the sport of dragon boating has gradually spread beyond Asia to Europe, North America, Australia and Africa, becoming a popular international sport with a growing number of participants.

The Hong Kong Tourism Bureau helped move dragon boat racing into the modern era by donating teak dragon boats to countries around the world. In 1986, the Hong Kong Pavillion at Expo 86 donated 4 teak dragon boats to the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Community leaders in Vancouver quickly saw the potential in creating a multicultual event that would bring together the Chinese and non-Chinese citizens for a fun event and festival, giving birth to the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival, now known as the Alcan Dragon Boat Festival. The original boats were loaned/rented to Toronto, Victoria, Seattle and Los Angeles and quickly helped spread the seeds for modern dragon boat racing throughout North America. Taiwanese style dragon boats have also been donated to sister cities in North America to help found the Portland Kaoshung Dragon Boat races in Portland Oregon, USA. <ref> Dragon Boats a Celebration by Pat Barker ISBN 1-55192-079-4 </ref>

Today, dragon boat racing (sport and festival) is among the fastest growing of team water sports, with tens of thousands of participants in various organizations and clubs in around 60 countries - most of which are IDBF members or applicants for Membership. The sport is recognized for the camaraderie, strength and endurance fostered amongst participants, and it has also become a very popular corporate and charitable sport.

North America's largest operator of dragon boat festivals is GWN Dragon Boat. GWN operates over 40 festivals per year in various communities around North America. *[1]

Several of the largest dragon boat events outside Asia include Alcan Dragon Boat Festival (aka. Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival) held in Vancouver, British Columbia, the GWN Dragon Boat Challenge held in Toronto, Ontario, Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival held in Toronto, Ontario, the Ottawa Dragon Boat Race Festival held in Ottawa, Ontario, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York held in Queens, New York, and the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association/Portland Rose Festival Association Race [[2]]. The three Canadian festivals feature 180 teams and the New York festival features over 120 teams, and all are held on weekends nearest the Summer Solstice in accordance with traditional Chinese dragon boat traditions.

European competition is just as varied with many national bodies aligned to the IDBF running competitions attended by many crews during the summer season. The UK national championships, as an example, is run by the British Dragonboat Association (BDA). The championship is the culmination of a season comprising of eight regattas held between May and September. There is additionally a very active charity circuit operating on a more ad hoc basis throughout Europe.


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 ICF (International Canoe Federation)has recently taken an interest in Dragon Boat Sport and in a limited way organised Dragon Boat Races for its own Member Canoe Federations only.

The IDBF is the World Governing Body of Dragon Boat Sport and as the GAISF Member recognised by the Council of the GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federations)classifies ICF Dragon Boating as 'Closed Competition'.

IDBF member associations or federations have been established in over 56 countries, since 1991 (eg. 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 their are a further 20 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 apply for this status when it has 75 Member Countries or Territories - the minimum number needed for IOC recognition. Some National Olympic Committees (NOC) have already accepted Dragon boat national organization 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.

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.

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.

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.

Both the ADBF and EDBF also hold National eam 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 WDBRC Yueyang Flag of Earth China
1996 CCWC Vancouver Flag of Earth Canada
1997 WDBRC Hong Kong Flag of Earth China
1998 CCWC Wellington Flag of Earth New Zealand
1999 WDBRC Nottingham Flag of Earth United Kingdom
2001 WDBRC Philadelphia Flag of Earth United States
2002 CCWC Rome Flag of Earth Italy
2003 WDBRC Poznan(1) Flag of Earth Poland
2004 CCWC Cape Town Flag of Earth South Africa
2004 WDBRC Shanghai(1) Flag of Earth China
2005 WDBRC Berlin Flag of Earth Germany
2006 CCWC Toronto Flag of Earth Canada
2007 WDBRC Sydney Flag of Earth Australia
2008 CCWC Penang Flag of Earth Malaysia
2009 WDBRC Moscow Flag of Earth Russia
1 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.
2 Provisional
  • International 'Festival' Dragon Boat Races.

The oldest International Festival Races are those held in Hong Kong annually. The HKIR have been held since 1976 and are acknowledged as starting the modern era of the dragon boat sport.

The biggest dragon boat festival racing events outside of Asia are in Europe, particularly in Malmo, Sweden and in the USA and Canada. 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.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has
media related to:
  • [3] www.dragonboatwest.net A forum for the West Coast Dragon Boat Community
  • [4] Water's Edge in Vancouver, Canada

International governing organisations

National governing organisations

Dragon Boat Teams

Annual races by month held










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fr:Bateau-dragon id:Peh Cun sk:Dračia loď zh:龍舟

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