Skipping across the water at breakneck speed, three dragon heads race as they have for thousands of years. The backdrop may have evolved from huts to sky scrappers but Aberdeen’s harbor maintains a very traditional vibe.
Behind the mighty and symbolic dragon heads lie a muscular body, harmoniously clawing its way across the water. Mouths wide open, white teeth bared, the three dragons take turns edging into the lead as they cross the finish line.
Exhausted and unable to breathe, the dragon’s body breaks from harmonicity, turning from one well-oiled machine into many well-trained amateur athletes – who have been fighting for the coveted first place in Hong Kong’s annual Dragon Boat Festival races.
Putting some questions to a dragon boat racer
One of my good friends, Caro, took part in May’s dragon boat races after a year of hardcore training. A day after the festival, I asked her what the sport is all about, and for her top tips to newbies wanting to try…
How long have you been a dragon boat racer?
This is my first season dragon boating!
Which team do you race with?
I race with ABC Buzz Dragonboating.
How many people are on your team/race in the boat with you?
There are around 60 people on my team. In a typical race, you are racing with a paddling crew of 20 people – 10 people divided into two rows.
Then, there’s a drummer at the bow of the boat that works with the front two paddlers (the ‘strokes’) to set the rhythm, pace, and timing of the rest of the boat, with a ‘helm’ at the back steering the boat.
How often do you train?
The team I joined is more competitive than your typical expat team. We’ve trained three times a week, since January, to prepare for the race season. Our race season started mid-April and will last until the beginning of June. We also have off-season training from September to December, which is optional.
Our team trains in Aberdeen.
What’s the hardest part of dragon boating for you?
The technical aspect of the sport. There are always a million and one things to be thinking about and working on. As a new paddler, it’s overwhelming at first, but you just need to pick one thing to focus on at a time. Although this is the hardest part, it’s also the challenge of improving that drives me to show up to every practice. It’s one of those sports where even paddlers with years and years of experience can still be improving on small technical parts of their stroke.
The best bit about dragon boating is definitely the racing! We train hard for months in preparation of race season, and it’s really rewarding to see all the blood, sweat, and tears pay off through the successes. Nothing is better than a race where everyone on the team has put in their all, and you can collectively feel that effort in the boat. Race days are super fun and I’m already looking forward to more years of racing to come.
Is there a good social side to dragon boat racing?
The social side to dragon boating is incredible… by seeing your teammates 3 times a week at training, you are able to establish relationships with many of them – this is more often than I see some of my good friends! My team also has an awesome social committee that plans multiple fun events throughout the training and race season. Not to mention the post-race celebrations that ensue after every race day, aided with what’s basically an endless supply of alcohol from a few of our sponsors! (Hong Kong Brewhouse, Grappa’s, Artisan Imports Ltd, etc).
Top tips for newbies wanting to join…
My top tips for newbies would be to first decide how much you want to commit to the sport, how competitive you would like to be, and how much you would like to personally develop as a paddler. If you are looking for a mostly social, low commitment, beer league type of team, find one that practices once weekly. For those up for the commitment, competitiveness, and technical challenge of the sport, I would encourage finding a more serious team (3 practices a week)! In my opinion, the commitment is worth the reward.
For more on how you too can race the dragons, check out these links…
Or email Caro’s team – firstname.lastname@example.org – for more information.
To find out how you can watch next year’s races (in May 2018) check out this link here.
The legend of the dragon boat festival
So the myth goes, an academic named, Qu Yuan, drowned himself in the Miluo River a couple thousand years ago.
Locals raced out in their boats to save the well-respected scholar, beating loud drums to scare the fish from eating him alive.
Upon finding no trace of Yuan, they dropped rice balls into the river to distract the fish from eating his flesh.
To this day, locals celebrate by prepping and eating zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) drinking realgar (Chinese cereal wine) and by racing their colorful dragon boats.
Full photography credit for this article goes to Caro, who captured well the spirit of this year’s dragon boat festival!
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