What is commonly referred to as the oldest continuously raced sport in
the world is still enjoying a steady growth in popularity.
Dragon boat racing is believed to have originated on China's Mi Lo River
as early as 400 BC, but never has it been as popular as it is today.
The sport has its roots in Chinese legend. According to the history of
the sport (posted on the Dragon Cup USA Web site), Qu Yuan, a Chinese statesman
and poet, drowned himself in the Mi Lo River in 400 BC to protest the corrupt
regime of the Chu Dynasty.
Fishers who saw him raced out in an attempt to save him, but failed. To
prevent his body from being eaten by fish, the fishers beat the waters with
their paddles and threw rice dumplings wrapped in silk into the water as a
sacrifice to his spirit.
From that beginning 2,400 years ago came the sport of dragon boat racing.
Today, over a million paddlers take part in annual dragon boat festivals all
over the world.
Popular for centuries in Asian countries, the sport is growing steadily
in North America.
Edward Quan is the treasurer of the U.S Dragon Boat Federation. He estimates
there are between 10,000 and 20,000 participants currently involved in the
sport in the U.S. He also estimates the number of participants is increasing
by about 10 percent per year.
Paul Gil is a member of the Edmonton Dragon Boat Racing Club. He estimates
there are 25 major racing festivals in Canada each year. He notes that those
festivals attract an average of 70 teams each.
The future of the sport looks very bright in North America. Paul Haber
is a member of the Smoke on the Water Dragon Boat Club. He says it is reported
to be the fastest-growing sport in the world, and everything he has seen confirms
"In the last five years, I have seen the number of festivals -- as well
as the number of competitors -- almost quadruple," says Haber.
"We often are involved in festivals with over 1,000 competitors. In a six-lane
race, there are 112 competitors in each heat."
Participants vary in age. There are categories for men, women and mixed
teams, as well as junior and senior crews. It's not uncommon for a mixed recreational
team to have paddlers of all ages, from teens up to senior racers. Co-ed teams
require a minimum of eight females.
The sport tends to be very social in nature. Alvin Wang is the president
of the San Francisco Bay Area Dragons racing team. He says that because so
many clubs are co-ed, it lends itself to more friendly competition.
"Since it is a non-contact sport, you often find competing teams getting
together for a drink or dinner after the races," he says.
"In the U.S., over 80 percent of the teams are mixed. That means that at
least eight paddlers are female. Most crews end up being around 50 percent
The fact that it's a team sport is also one of the reasons dragon boat
racing is increasing in popularity with female participants, according to
"There is no sitting out in left field waiting to see a ball. Everyone
paddles and everyone is critical to success," he says. "If the boat loses,
it is also a team effort, so there is no point in blaming a single person,
unless that person stops paddling."
Most races are between 250 and 1,000 meters in length, although there are
some longer races. The most popular distance in North America is 500 m. In
most cases, it takes a dragon boat crew between two and three minutes to complete
a 500-m race.
Most crews consist of 22 people. Twenty crewmembers are the paddlers, sitting
in two columns of 10 each. At the very front of the boat is the drummer.
According to Wang, it is a common misconception that the drummer sets the
stroke rate. He says the two paddlers at the front of the columns (referred
to as strokes) set the rate and the drummer follows their lead.
At the rear of the boat is the steersperson, who is responsible for keeping
the boat straight. Some boats use as few as 18 paddlers, while others can
use as many as 26.
For many competitors, the cost of getting involved in the sport is restricted
to the membership fee for a dragon boat club, and the entry fee for any festival
(or competition) that they enter.
In most cases, the organizers of each festival supply all of the boats,
paddles and personal floatation devices the competitors will need.
Because the cost of the vessels (between $5,000 and $17,000) can be prohibitive,
very few clubs actually own their own dragon boats. Some of the larger clubs
in the U.S. have boats that they rent to smaller clubs and teams, to allow
them to practice between races.
The sport of dragon boat racing can be very strenuous. The boats themselves
can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. While most weight about 1,000 pounds, the
crew is actually paddling a boat that weighs between two and three tons, once
the weight of the crewmembers is factored in.
Brian Brown is a member of the Smoke on the Water Dragon Boat Club. He
says the races are short in length, but very demanding.
"The typical race is three minutes long. Physically, it demands entire
body strength, particularly the back and stomach muscles," he explains.
"After an hour practice on the water, you know that you've had a full body
workout. I have participated in many sports and I believe dragon boating is
next to none for an upper body workout."
Haber adds that in addition to endurance, strength and cardio training,
dragon boat racing also has its mental health advantages. "Something about
getting in a boat and pushing off from the shore immediately helps me forget
my daily problems," he says.
Depending on the number of competitors entered in each category at a dragon
boat festival, the races are run in a series of several heats, with the field
getting smaller as the slower boats are eliminated and the top teams advance
to the finals.
United States Dragon Boat Federation
American Dragon Boat Association
P.O. Box 477
Boston Dragon Boat Festival
Gives an account of the legend that started it all
National Capital Dragon Boat Race Festival
Includes a section for potential volunteers
Alcan Dragon Boat Festival
Learn more about the history of the sport
Montreal International Dragon Boat Race Festival
Check out the photos