Once again around the world people have squashed themselves into narrow wooden boats and pounded away at the sea with small paddles to the beat of a maniacal drummer. On the front of the boat, a dragons head with wide open eyes forges through the waves. His scales decorate the side and a flaming tail whips out the back. Inside the craft skins of every colour strain in perfect harmony to maintain the rhythm of their leader who calls and cajoles the team. Beside every Dragon Boat, another Dragon boat is literally at its tail. This is a race, and fiercely competed. Those who take up the spot of competitive Dragon Boating may tell themselves they are only in it for the drinking afterwards, but there is no denying the almost psychotic look of determination in the eyes of every paddler once they get into the water and the gun fires.

Dragon Boat racing is so popular it now takes place several times a year in countries are far and wide as Poland and South Africa, and from Sweden to Australia. One of the largest festivals now takes place in Canada.

Of course the origins of Dragon Boats are Chinese and there are recorded races as far back as 2500 years ago on the Pearl Delta. The boats themselves share a history with Polynesian outrigger canoes. They are similar in size and construction, and anthropologists have studied the links between the cultures of these two apparently disparate groups for some time. Teak from Indonesia used in the boats provides another clue as to how ancient cultures traded.

Dragon Boat racing is as old, if not older, than the Ancient Greek Olympics. Ledged has it that in those days it was a little bit rougher, with teams throwing rocks and bamboo sticks at each other in a desire to sink other boats and have their crews drown in order to win.

Of course, they don’t allow that anymore……

As well as being ancient, the sport is also steeped in tradition and mythology. The Dragon is the only mythical creature included in the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains.

Keeping the Dragon happy was very important, so worshipping it properly meant sacrifice and effort. Early races were held to celebrate the summer rice planting.

Nothing Chinese is celebrated without a special food, and for race days you can expect to find Zongzi which is a hand sized sticky rice package that will have meat of vegetables in the centre and is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed. Each paddler will often receive one before the race in order to ensure good luck for the team.

As well as the 20 paddlers and the drummer you will find of every boat, you will also see someone at the back steering the team onto (hopefully) a winning course. This person is known as the ‘sweep’ and they are the only crew member able to see everything that is going on. The drummer is facing backwards, the crew are down onside the boat bent over and madly paddling and the sweep is looking out for the other boats, as well as the best line in the water and the progress of their team. A good sweep is vital.

Dragon Boat racing is fast, fun, furious and a colourful and cultural way to enjoy sport. In spite of the competitive nature of the races, there are teams for every level of fitness and commitment. In Hong Kong, teams might be filled with young ‘eat or be eaten’ crazed bankers, or middle aged part time weekend warriors just in it for the bragging rights of kinsman ship and a cold beer afterwards.

All female teams are common, as are mixed teams. The nicest part of a Dragon Boat Festival is the richness of diversity it brings, and as the sunsets, the comradery of knowing that not only is the Dragon happy and satisfied, but so are the people involved. Besides, if your team didn’t win this time, there’s always another race.



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