Dragon Boat Racing

You laugh and joke with your crewmates as you nervously wait for the race to start. The boat rocks gently in the water. You remember how your friends convinced you to try this sport with the strange name of "dragon boat racing." Suddenly, the signal sounds. And you're off!

You pull and strain with your teammates to the drummer's beat. You feel the rhythm in your whole body, like the heartbeat of the boat itself. You have time for just three thoughts: Will your crew win? How did you get yourself into this predicament? And how could you ever explain dragon boats?

The short answer? It all started in China. Many historians trace dragon boats back over 2,000 years to the ancient kingdom of Chu. Around 278 BC, the popular poet and official, Qu Yuan, had heard that the king's court was mixed up in corrupt dealings. Famed for his ethics, Qu Yuan was impelled to protest the corruption. Now, as a whistle blower in ancient China with few options for activism, Qu Yuan settled on a sure-fire and selfless way to capture people's attention. Taking a boat into the middle of the Mi Luo river, he tied a large stone to his leg and jumped in. To the cries of onlookers, the stone pulled him under.

The legend says that when efforts to save Qu Yuan failed, villagers threw rice into the river to feed the fish and draw them away from his body. Several days had passed when Qu Yuan's friends dreamed that he appeared to them with an urgent message: the rice was not making it to the fish, after all. A great dragon was greedily eating it first! The solution? Since dragons avoided silk, his friends were to package the rice in it. The friends dutifully followed their instructions, dropping the silk packages from boats. They went on to repeat the ritual every midsummer after that, in memory of their beloved poet. Over the centuries, the legend and observance gradually grew to become dragon boat racing. A colorful mainstay of the Chinese Duanwu summer solstice festival, the races keep alive the memory of Qu Yuan, long since a national hero.

Fast forward to Hong Kong in 1976. That year, the HK Tourism Bureau sponsored the first-ever Hong Kong International Races. It was not long before they became the annual World Championships of Dragon Boat Racing.

Fast forward again, ten more years: 1986, the centennial celebration of Vancouver, Canada. It so happened that one of the many events featured was a dragon boat race. For the first time, people from all over the world had the chance to witness this picturesque tradition. The ornate vessels were a hit, with their brightly-painted, carved dragon-heads protecting them from evil spirits (and fish)! When the spectators returned home, they took the idea with them. The secret was finally out.

Now dragon boats are everywhere! You can find them from the UK to Sweden and in most other European countries, as well. You'll see them in both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Australia and New Zealand are in on the act, of course. It goes without saying that East Asia is dragon boat heaven, wherever large Chinese populations are found, including Singapore and Malaysia. Races run even in Iran, Egypt and Israel.

Most nations in Europe have national dragon-boat governing bodies aligned with both the European and the International Dragon Boat Federations. The Asian Dragon Boat Federation regulates Asian events. The U.S. has its own United States Dragon Boat Federation, but groups in North and South American together comprise the Pan American Dragon Boat Federation.

Two further examples may suggest the extent of dragon boating's influence in world culture. The world Scouting movement has been affected — it now offers a dragon boating merit badge. Even the British royal family has been infiltrated: Princes William and Harry raced dragon boats while students at Eton, and Princess William (Kate) also trained on them. The whole world has caught dragon fever!

The list of federations says it all. Dragon-boat racing has become a recognized competitive water sport, one of the world's fastest-growing. Both traditional and competitive races are held all over the world, attracting millions of tourists and spectators and generating millions of dollars. Each racing tournament is a huge festival with many thousands of onlookers. Local business and corporate sponsors often participate, as do charities, which raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single race. In fact, many events start out as charity challenges.

It's common for hundreds of crews to show up for dozens of races. Each crew has 17 to 20 rowers, one crewmember at the helm, and one drummer. The dragon boat weighs in at 500 pounds and stretching 40 feet from stem to stern and is traditionally made of teak. Efficiency counts: the crew must learn to row in time to the drummer's beat. In fact, a synchronized but weaker crew will typically defeat a stronger one rowing out of rhythm.

Races can run anywhere from 200 to 2,000 meters. They are often organized into heats in which the competitive spirit is almost thick enough to cut! Crews must survive several rounds of qualifying races to reach semi-finals and finals. Along the way, they often get to know their crewmates better than they ever imagined.

You don't even have to be an athlete to row. Crews come from all walks of life and can find races for virtually every fitness level. You can row with your friends, coworkers, or a local team. If you prefer challenges and traveling, the major endurance races await your best efforts: the Three Gorges Dam Rally along the Yangtze River, the 50-kilometer-plus Ord River marathon in Australia, and the Missouri River "1340" (545 kilometers), which is also open to canoes and kayaks.

Less competitive folks need not worry, though. The teams are not the only attendees having a good time! The crowd enjoys the day as much as the crews. The spectacle is a great outing for the whole family and brings people together, both within the community and internationally. The event promotes intercultural awareness, physical fitness, team spirit and just plain fun. Even the most laid-back spectators feel vicarious thrills as the crews approach the finish line, oars flashing and muscles burning.

That means you, sweating with your crewmates as you cut through the water to the beat of the your drummer. The crowd cheers. Will you win? Will you take home the trophy and the glory? To find out, you'll just have to be one of those adventurous spirits who make it to the race!