Summer brings the prime season for Dragon Boat racing. The sport continues to grow in popularity, and if you’ve never seen a race, you can likely find one at a river or lake near you.
Dragon Boat Legend
The story goes that Dragon Boat festivals commemorate a Chinese poet who drowned himself over 2000 years ago in political protest, as supporters tried unsuccessfully to paddle out and rescue him. Dragon boat racing grew out of Hong Kong in the 1970s and spread across the world and, later, the U.S.
Today’s festivals celebrate Chinese culture as they feature short sprint races among the teams.
Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Canada, kick-off the summer season with races in early June. Portland’s is part of the city’s Rose Festival, while Vancouver hosts an event dedicated to Chinese arts and music. Each city is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The Boston races are also in June – Boston bills itself as the longest running Dragon Boat race in the U.S. The San Francisco festival, held in September, bills itself as the country’s largest.
Taiwanese v. Hong Kong-style boats
Traditionally, the races were held in wooden boats with giant dragon heads – lead by a drummer and reared by a steersperson. The boats seat about 20-22 paddlers, sitting two abreast on a bench. Unlike crew, paddlers face forward, gaining leverage by reaching forward and twisting before planting the paddle perpendicular in the water and pulling it back. The Portland festival is the largest in North America that continues to use the so-called Taiwanese –style wooden dragon boats.
Other cities have switched to the sleeker, fiberglass Hong Kong-style boats (they’re also cheaper). Decorative temporary dragon heads and tails can be added for race events.
Teams of all shapes and sizes
Dragon boating is an equal opportunity sport. You will see athletes of all sizes and ages. Most races will have a few categories, but many teams happily paddle in last place, having fun just participating. Teams are organized by company, age (high schoolers, or seniors), profession, affinity (breast cancer survivors), among many other types. Some paddlers are veteran athletes who rowed in college, while many others are complete novices.
The overall point generally is to have fun being out on the water – which makes the festivals fun whether you’re a participant or an observer.