An accomplished writer in our midst! Paddler extraordinaire David Brill has encapsulated the very essence of dragon boat in this brilliant article (bet you get that all the time Dave, but I’m always one for an easy pun), published in the Medical Tribune’s May edition. I’ve included both versions since the one with the fetching picture didn’t allow me to read the full content properly. Until the next email, have a great bank holiday weekend, Rebecca
Enter the dragon
It may have taken 2,000 years but dragon boating is finally going global. David Brill finds out what makes paddling so popular.
Four p.m. on a Saturday afternoon an unlikely-looking crowd begins to gather. Twenty-year-olds chat idly with 50 somethings – locals mingle with expatriates. Some look ready for combat, sporting Rambo-style bandanas with oiled biceps to match. Others look ready for bed, reluctantly stretching uncooperative muscles and swapping stories of last night’s excess.
Ten minutes later their connection becomes obvious. Armed with large wooden paddles and bright red life jackets, they squeeze into long, narrow boats and take to the water. The coach shouts the command and they move off – arms rising and falling in unison as the individuals blend into a synchronized propulsion unit.
The team is paddling a dragon boat, and it is their love of the sport that brings them together each week. This group represents the British Chamber of Commerce – just one of the many teams which make up the now-thriving dragon boating community in Singapore. The local scene wasn’t always so healthy, however.
“Two years ago there were some weeks we couldn’t even put the boat in the water because there weren’t enough people to carry it,” says Mr. Paul Robinson, captain of the British team. “Then, suddenly, it shot up. Now we’re putting out three boats a week – around 50 or 60 people.”
There are currently some 7,000 regular dragon boaters in Singapore, and the numbers continue to rise. From one-off corporate events through to teams that paddle at the international level, there is a full spectrum of competition that makes the sport feel welcoming to all comers. This accessibility is one of the main forces behind its rising popularity, according to Mr. Jason Chen, a former member of the Singapore national team and now a professional dragon boat coach. What first began as a hobby at school has now developed into a full-time career as sales and marketing manager of SAVA – a Singapore-based private company which aims to develop and promote the sport.
“Dragon boating is very easy to learn – it’s not a sport that requires years of training,” he says. “Satisfaction is high and there is that sense of teamwork, of trying to achieve a common goal.
“The sport is really growing. If you go into a shopping center now, you’ll probably see someone walking around carrying a paddle. It’s becoming a trend that people will at least paddle a dragon boat once or twice in their lifetime, or be in a team for some time,” says Chen.
Dragon boating originated in China around 2,000 years ago, and the country continues to dominate the scene today with some 50 million paddlers, according to the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). The appeal of the sport, however, is rapidly spreading: there are presently over 300,000 dragon boaters in Europe and nearly 100,000 in the US and Canada. The IDBF, formed in 1991, now comprises 61 member countries, representing all the different continents and a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Hong Kong has one of Asia’s most vibrant dragon boat scenes and plays host to one of the world’s best-known events – the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships. Up to 20,000 people turn up each year to compete, cheer on the teams and sip champagne aboard the flotilla of corporate junks that line the harbor.
“It’s a tremendous spectacle … like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” says Mr. John Pache, who coached the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club men’s team to gold in last year’s Stanley tournament. He describes the win as an “amazing feeling,” but feels that for many of the new recruits to dragon boating, it’s the fun of taking part that counts.
“I think there are a lot of people who do dragon boating who don’t necessarily do a lot of other sports. It appeals to people who want to do something as part of a team but don’t necessarily want to do ball sports or a lot of running, or anything high-impact,” he explains. “People also like the social aspect of it. You can meet up with your friends and become part of a wide community that turns up regularly, and enjoys all the events that go along with that.”
Pache believes the popularity of dragon boating will continue to rise naturally but says that much will depend on the sport’s ability to gain inclusion in the Olympic Games. The IDBF is working toward this goal but without definitive success so far. In the meantime, the major international event remains the annual world championship, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic. Thousands have already registered for the event, and many more are expected to do so by the time the boats hit the water in August.
Back in Singapore there are plenty of opportunities to compete locally as well as internationally, with a constant spread of events throughout the year. Robinson and his team are currently training for the annual Singapore Dragon Boat Festival, to be held on the last weekend in June.
New starters to dragon boating may wish to dip their toe in the water with a training session, but it is the grandstand experience of these race days that will keep them coming back for more. The cheers from the crowd, the beat of the drums – everything combines to create a nerve-wracking yet exhilarating day out.
“It’s a hell of a shock to the system when the buzzer goes off,” says Robinson. “It’s all going to be over within minutes, so you just go for it with everything you’ve got. You’re becoming tired with every stroke, but you have to keep your mind focused and keep going. As soon as you cross the finish line, you absolutely think you’re going to die. If you don’t, then you haven’t paddled hard enough.”
For some, it is the camaraderie and social aspect that attract them to dragon boating; for others it is the intensity of a good upper body workout. Robinson acknowledges all of these things, but ultimately it’s a simple desire to compete which drives him to take out his bandana every weekend.
“It’s a great rush of adrenaline and testosterone. I’m addicted to it. It’s like going to war. I’m friends with all the other captains, but as soon as my foot gets in that boat I want to destroy them,” he says.
For more information on dragon boating, see http://www.idbf.org and http://www.sava.com.sg.