The history and origins of this ancient sport.
The Origins of Dragon Boats
As the name and the image painted on Dragon Boats imply, the sport originated in China some 2000 years ago. It is said that during the 4th Century BC, when the country was immersed in political turmoil and upheaval, there lived a Chinese poet and patriot named, Qu Yuan.
Qu Yuan was a champion of political reform. Having caught the ire of the King, Qu Yuan was banished and was left to wander aimlessly around the countryside, where he penned emotionally stirring poems that spoke of his love and concern for his country.
During his exile, he learned about his town’s defeat at the hands of another kingdom. Overwrought with grief and disgust for the present regime, Qu Yuan leaped into the Mei Lo River and ended his life. Those who saw Qu Yuan go into the water attempted to save their beloved poet by jumping in their fishing boats and raced furiously towards where Qu Yuan met his fate.
In an attempt to keep fish and water dragons from approaching Qu Yuan, they beat on drums and made an extra effort to splash the waters with their oars. Alas, their efforts were all in vain.
To honour the poet, especially during the anniversary of his demise, the fishermen scattered rice dumplings (“Tsung Tze” or “Ma Chang”) into the water to ensure that, wherever Qu Yuan was, he will never go hungry. One night, however, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared and told his followers that the rice dumplings that were meant for him were being consumed by a river dragon. He then requested that, to ward off the dragon, succeeding offerings be wrapped in three-cornered silk packages and secured by five strings of different colours. This is still being practiced today, however, now, the dumplings are wrapped in leaves.
A less romantic but more realistic story about the history of dragon boat racing states that many townsfolk living in the valleys of Southern China believe that the fifth Chinese lunar month is one that is full of misfortune. To avert disease, death and famine, superstitious town members would hold boat races, in honour of the mighty dragon, on the fifth day of the said month.
During this time, sacrifices were also made to appease the heavenly being. It is said that when one of the rowing members fell into the water, no one should offer him any assistance because by doing so, they are going against the will of the gods.
What are Dragon Boats?
Dragon Boats, despite the ferocious sounding name, are still, in basic principle, boats. These are usually made of wood and are wide enough for two people to sit side by side in. Dragon boats come in varying lengths. They can be short enough to accommodate only 20 rowers, or large enough to hold a pair of 40 strong paddlers.
These boats are decorated gaily with paint and festoons to resemble the scales, fins and tail of the mighty dragon. Originally, dragon boats were made of teak wood; however, modern innovations allow the use of lighter yet more durable material. One such material is fibreglass. The hulls of most manufactured Dragon Boats are made of fibreglass and the keelson and gunnels are further reinforced with high grade marine plywood. To ensure buoyancy, the bulkheads are filled with closed-cell foam.
Other woods of varying colours are used to decorate or adorn Dragon Boats, and these are all finished with waterproof epoxies and marine varnish.
Dragon Boat Crew
A dragon boat team of any size is always composed of a drummer, a steerer or tiller, and several paddlers. There are instances when additional people, serving as flag wavers, hand clapper or leader joins the crew on board. These are not necessarily needed in a team. What is important is that the key positions are occupied.
Often times called the caller, the person occupying this post may be considered the heart of the entire team. The speed, timing and cadence of the strokes of those holding the oars depend on the rhythmic beat of his drum (or his gong).
In addition to maintaining the pace of the boat, the drummer may also issue commands or instructions to the paddlers through hand signals or verbal orders, all aimed to encourage the paddlers to work even harder. Although the drummer or caller may not be around during training, he has to be present during the actual event itself.
Drummers also need to be aware of the position of his dragon boat in relation to the others in the competition. He should know when, depending on wind speed, the current and nearness to the finish line, it’s time to increase or reduce the pace. Drummers must know the strength and weaknesses of his crew so he can position them in the boat accordingly.
Normally, one drummer per dragon boat is enough. The drummer is usually positioned at the head of the boat. For longer boats that hold up to 40 pairs of paddlers, it is not unusual to find the drummer located at the middle of the boat.
The paddlers, as the name implies, are those who handle the paddles of the dragon boat. Paddlers are usually seated together by pairs and of all paddlers; the two seated at the very front of the boat are designated as the “strokes” or “strokers”. They hold a valuable position as the pace of the entire team will depend, not only on the drum beats, but also on them.
All the paddlers seated behind the stokers will synchronise strokes with theirs and not with the strokes of seated ahead of them.
Seated at the rear of the boat is the steerer. Also called coxswain, helm, steersman, sweep, or tiller, this position is responsible for steering the boat. The Steerer controls the boat’s direction by means of a steering oar, which is mounted at the rear of the boat. The steerer together with the drummer may call out commands during a competition.
The position of Flag Catcher originated in Taiwan. This position is not imperative to complete a dragon boat team but it is slowly being incorporated into the team roster. The designated flag catcher is tasked to grab a lane flag when the boat crosses the finish line. Those who successfully get a flag finish the race, and those who miss are disqualified. Flag catchers are seated behind the drummer, but move towards the front as the boat approaches the finish line.
Rituals and Traditions
Having originated from a land steeped with rituals and traditions, it is expected that Dragon Boats, before they are raced, must undergo their share of unique ceremonies.
Prior to starting a race, Dragon Boats have to be blessed and “awakened” properly. Four days before the race, the boats, complete with the detachable dragon heads and tails, are brought out of their storage areas. These boats are then blessed and the benediction is done with much pomp and pageantry. After the boats have been blessed, paper bills, which are offerings to the gods, are burned in front of them. This strange ritual is supposed to ward off evil and make the vessels strong, swift and ripe for racing.
After the land-based blessing, the boats are then rowed out to sea and back three times, on a course that runs perpendicular to a nearby temple. It is only after the boats have returned can they be considered primed for the competition.
If there is a ritual before the race starts, there is also one that is done after the race has been completed. When the race is over and the last boat has crossed the finish line, the makeshift dragon head, tail and drum of each boat are removed and stored in the temple or in a place designated by the community and incense is burnt as a token of thanks to the gods.
While this is happening, the body of the dragon is either covered with sand or placed on racks and covered with tin foil covers. After this is done, the dragons are considered “reposed”. They will remain asleep until it’s time to awaken them again the following year.
Newly-built dragon boats are given life by a Taoist priest a few days before it is raced. In this ceremony, the priest holds a bell and a sword into the “Fu Zhou”. While chanting, he first touches the head, tail and drum with the sword. The “Fu Zhou” (ritual money with words written on it) is then burnt and sand is sprinkled on the dragon’s head. The dragon’s eye, which will alter be drawn in red, is dotted initially by a community leader.
Festivals and Races
Dragon Boat Races, which are held during the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, started in China as a way to commemorate the death and recreate the attempts to save the life of poet Qu Yuan. In olden times, one paddler stands in the boat in search of the poet’s body. Dragon Boat became very popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and it was during this time that the event spread throughout the Yangtze River Valley and most of Southern China.
Dragon Boat Racing used to be a violent event that often resembled naval battles. Aside from racing towards a finish line, crew members threw stones and used sticks to hit the members of opposing teams. Onlookers were of no help as they would cheer wildly and offer gifts for their team; and hurl insults, and stones to the others. Participants used to look forward to a drowning, as a safe festival (where one does not die of drowning) is deemed “unlucky”.
Dragon Boat Festivals are no longer as violent as it was before. Festivals today are marked by camaraderie and friendship. Still held during the traditional dates, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the event is recognized not only in China, but in other parts of the world as well. In Chinese communities, aside from the traditional race, the event is celebrated by hanging herbs on front doors, drinking strange yet nutritious concoctions.
Others attempt the impossible. If they can make an egg stand on one end and this is done at exactly 12 noon, the following year is sure to be a very prosperous one.
The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) is the governing body that organises and monitors most of the international dragon boat races held today. The IDBF has split dragon boat activities into two distinct categories: sport racing and festival racing.
Festival races, more traditional yet informal events, are characterised by a standard 500 meter sprint. Other international races have longer distances and these not only test the boat’s speed, but the endurance of the paddlers too. An example of this festival race, called “Three Gorges Dam Rally” is held along the Yangtze River and covers a distance up to 100 kilometres
Sport Racing has more strict rules of racing. The distance covered by most sport races vary from 200m, 250m, 500m, 1000m and 2000m. Only members of the IDBF can join formal sport races. The IDBF organizes several Dragon Boat Racing Competitions every year. One such event is the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships (WDBRC) which is held every two years. The WDBRC is open to representative national or territorial teams. In the interim, the IDBF holds the Club Crew World Championships (CCWC), an exclusive competition for the top club-based crews of the world.
To address the competitive spirit of crews that only join Festival Races, and the “weekend warriors”, those who row only during their free time, the IDBF, in 2005 introduced the Corporate and Community World Championships.
Dragon Boat versus Canoeing and Rowing
Many people mistakenly believe that Dragon Boat and Canoeing are the same, although in principle this is somewhat true, these two activities have more differences than similarities.
One such difference is that dragon boat members use short, hand-held paddles instead of the longer oars associated with a canoe or a row boat. Another difference lies in the way the paddlers or rowers sit when they are inside their vessels. Paddlers sit facing towards the prow (front) of the boat, whereas rowers sit facing the rear end of the ship.
Although being able to swim is not a requirement, it is better if you knew how to, at the very least, float. If you lead a relatively sedentary life or are growing old in age, it is advised that, before embarking on any physical activity, you consult your doctor. When you are on the boat, be mindful of the instructions of the drummer and concentrate on synchronising your movements with the main strokers.
Finally, no matter how confident you feel about your ability to paddle, do not, under any circumstance, row without your life jacket. Being a member or crew of a dragon boat team doesn’t mean you should meet the fate of the poet who is credited to have started this glorious tradition.
So what are you waiting for? Grab a paddle and start Dragon Boat Racing!