the art of competitive dragon boat racing
posted: June 3, 2014
Dan Khoe’s team is in it to train hard, get fit and to win. As with all winning teams, they’re so closely-knit that they can read each other’s body language like a book, which is why once you join a team, you’re on it for life, says Dan. “There’s no jumping around. Everybody needs to be absolutely in tune, otherwise the race will fall apart.” Once in a while, the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein even shows up to cheer them on since Dan’s team is, by proxy, competing on behalf of Liechtenstein’s royal family.
His team is the Hong Kong-based Royal Liechtenstein Princely Navy dragon boat team, a competitive team sponsored by Liechtenstein’s LGT bank and a regular fixture among the 220 teams that compete each year at Hong Kong’s Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships (a.k.a. The Stanleys).
Roast pigs, burnt incense and offerings made to the Gods–these are the rituals of China’s oldest and most intense sport and among the reasons dragon boating is one of that country’s most traditional. Yet one look at the sport’s growing popularity around the globe and it’s clear the sport’s future is also very bright.
In Hong Kong dragon boating warrants a public holiday so that all of society can join in the festivities and be privy to some of the sport’s biggest races, including The Stanleys. Thirty thousand people from all walks of life show up to watch The Stanleys, and as diverse a group paddle in them; corporate teams, teams just there to dress up and have fun, and teams like Dan’s who are in it to compete on a very serious level.
“If you’re a fun team, you just kind of get in the water, paddle around a bit and hire a coach to show you the basics. But when you hit competition level, just paddling isn’t good enough anymore,” he says.
Generally, teams begin their land training in January, a gruelling routine that includes circuit training and boot camp as well as strength and endurance training. As the main race draws closer the teams phase out the land training (around the end of March) to integrate more water training until June, at which time they’re exclusively in the water.
The biggest misconception people have about dragon boating, Dan says, is that it’s all about the arms. In fact, the power is generated from your core. “Yoga translates very well into the water, preventing injury, keeping you strong, flexible, and it increases the range you need for paddling. You need a very fluid technique to be able to apply your muscles to the water.”
According to Alvin Lai, captain and chairman of the Fair Dinkum dragon boating club (a social, but competitive team), just being a super athlete isn’t enough to be good at dragon boating; it requires a mixture of endurance and technique.
Each team has a captain who sits in the middle of the boat and calls the race–meaning s/he calls the strategy on the boat, the timing, when the team should speed up, and when they need to put in more power. A drummer at the bow of every boat provides the beat the team strokes to. Team members known as ‘the strokes,’ are the fittest of the team and found in the first row of the boat. They help set the pace of the race by feeling how the boat is doing, how synchronized it is, and recognizing when people are starting to fatigue. An experienced stroke sets the pace based on what they feel from the team.
Purists of the sport will direct you to a level of dragon boating called ‘fishermen racing.’ (Like many places in Hong Kong, the town of Stanley was once a fishing village.)
“When I say fishermen, I literally mean these people are fishermen from really small communities who live on the water,” explains Dan. “Their level of racing is much higher than what you see at The Stanleys because they have been training together their whole lives. It’s part of their culture,” Dan says.
A normal dragon boat race is about 500 metres, which typically takes two to two-and-a-half minutes. Fringe type races are one to five kilometres long. Some fishermen races go on for 30 kilometres, requiring a few hours of paddling.
“If you love dragon boating, it’s because you love the team spirit of the sport,” says Alvin. “It’s very rare that you find a sport where you have 20 people doing exactly the same thing, as a team.”
Alicia-Rae is a writer, adventurer and our international blog coordinator. You’ll never catch her without her pen, notepad and camera in tow. She’s a DIY aficionado, and believes the best, and most beautiful, things in life are homemade. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.