Perks & perils of dragon boating

Investigating why this ancient sport is grabbing the public's attention all over Canada.

A drummer sets the stroke speed during the 13th annual Kingston Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, July 23.
A drummer sets the stroke speed during the 13th annual Kingston Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, July 23.
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With a limited knowledge of the sports world, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of dragon boat racing until an acquaintance told me about it.

Naturally, any sport that features the word “dragon” in its name is intriguing and warrants a proper investigation.

With a rich cultural history, dragon boating originated in China about 2,000 years ago and features the use of long, wooden boats powered by a team of human paddlers. Dragon boat clubs exist across Canada and with international recognition as a competitive sport, dragon boating is rapidly growing in popularity.

I decided to try out dragon boating for myself under the assumption that it would be a strictly casual pursuit. I came to the rude realization that my attitude would need to change. Dragon boating is no joke.

I was optimistic when I arrived in Toronto to join a crew from the world-renowned National Dragon Boat Club.

Putting my reservations aside, I took my assigned seat in the back row next to a subdued woman. Hoping to relieve my anxiety, I asked her if she enjoys her recreational dragon boat practices. She answered affirmatively but then lowered her voice and said, “It’s very hard.”

I had no time to process the warning from my friendly neighbour. We were instructed to begin paddling. With this, I was thrown into my first dragon boating experience.

My vision of paddling was a leisurely movement expected on a lazy canoe ride in Muskoka. This naive definition doesn’t apply to dragon boat racing—or even a simple training session.

To operate at maximum efficiency, a dragon boat generally requires a crew of twenty-two. Adorned with Chinese dragon imagery, the boat is powered by the strength of twenty paddlers who sit in pairs facing the front of the boat. Paddlers use single - blade paddles to swiftly propel the watercraft forward, while a cox or helm steers the boat from the back. A drummer, keeping steady rhythm, sits in the front. The cox, in this case a seemingly reserved man named Stan, coaches the dragon boat crew while simultaneously steering. As we paddled, Stan’s yelling implied that something much greater than propelling the boat was at stake.

He wanted to see whirlpools and he wanted to see them now. How much pent-up aggression would create a sufficiently large enough whirlpool to please this man?

My teammates complained loudly at the lack of whirlpools and the once subdued woman beside me, obviously exasperated, demanded that everyone focus. This atmosphere of fear worked. My teammates motivated me to paddle as if my life depended on it. It was only five minutes into our practice when I realized what a grueling exercise dragon boating is. Contrary to what some might think, I’m no weakling and I don’t fear exercise. That said, propelling the boat 60 strokes per minute down Lake Ontario created a fiery pain in my arms that I’ve never before felt.

Despite the exhaustion, I persevered. I knew the team needed my strength and I couldn’t, under any circumstances, let them down.

Near the much-anticipated end of practice, I was fortunate enough to be relocated to the front of the watercraft so that I could experience the sport from the perspective of the drummer. It’s a critical and daunting role because drumming sets the speed of the paddlers’ strokes. On an elevated plank at the front of the boat, I balanced over a small drum. Avoiding a fall off of this tiny drum fixture while the boat glides forward is a challenge. I can only imagine trying to balance at a racing speed.

Needless to say, I have a newfound respect for the sport. Dragon boating is intense.

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