What is Dragon Boat Racing?


Dragon boat racing has its roots in southern China and is currently one of the longest continuous running sporting events in the world.  Festivals and racing commemorate the attempted rescue of Chinese poet Qu Yuan when he drowned in the Mi Lo River in Hunan Province over 2000 years ago.


Standard festival and international race teams consist of 20 paddlers, a caller/drummer, and a steersperson.  Taiwanese-style boats, such as used for Portland’s Rose Festival, are raced by 16 paddlers and also include a flag-catcher in addition to the caller/drummer and steersperson.  Typical festival races are 500 meters, though some events may also include 200, 250, 1000, or 2000 meter races.  Races are typically run in 4 to 8 boat heats with each boat in its own lane.  Races are an intense, all-out sprint and are often decided by hundredths of a second.


Dragon boat racing is more of a team sport than most team sports as synchronization is key for performing well in competition. There are no Michael Jordans in dragon boat racing.  Dragon boat racing, like other competitive paddling sports, is technically challenging but that is what makes it accessible to anyone.  It is truly a sport where you get out of it what you put into it.


The Crew


Paddlers sit facing forward with 2 paddlers in each bench.  Paddlers switch sides often during practice, but may have a preferred side for racing. The caller, often the team coach, sits in the bow of the boat facing the crew.  The caller provides direction for the crew, calls for corrections to technique and timing, and calls for rate and stroke changes during the different parts of the race.  The steersperson faces forward, maintains bearing, backs up the caller, and is responsible for the safety of the crew.  All paddlers do a forward stroke, i.e., with no steering component to the stroke.  Except for docking or doing buoy turns during a race, the steersperson is the only team member that controls the heading of the boat.


Rate and stroke cadence are set up by the leads (Bench 1) under direction from the caller.  The front few benches back up the leads to hold the rate while getting the stroke long in front to set up the engine room paddlers.  For races, rate is as high as the fitness level of the crew will allow, but low enough so that engine room paddlers can still apply power.  Since timing (i.e., synchronization) is key, novice paddlers usually end up in the back of the boat.  With a more experienced crew, the bigger, stronger paddlers with longer reach are usually seated in the middle and back of the boat since the water in the back of the boat behaves differently and can be more challenging to paddle in.


The Commands

One of the first things you will need to learn are the commands used in a Dragon Boat. Don’t worry about memorizing these now, someone will help you out.

General paddling commands:

•“Paddles Up”: All paddler’s are to raise their paddles above the water and assume the paddling position. They will hold this position until the next command is issued.

•“Take it away”: This is the “Go” command, so start paddling already .

•“Let it Run”: All Paddlers are to stop paddling and rest their paddles on their lap.

•“Draw” on the “Right/Left”: If the command is to Draw water on the “Left” the Paddler is to reach out on the left side of the boat as far as they can with their paddle blade parallel with the boat and pull the paddle towards them. This is how we pull the boat either right or left in the water.

•“Take it Back”: The paddler’s stroke in reverse, to move the boat backwards.

•“Hold” or “Hold the Boat”: The Paddlers thrust their blades into the water pointing straight down into the water holding the blade vertically. This command is called to stop the boat quickly.

•“Brace the Boat”: The paddler’s are to hold the paddle horizontal above the water blade flat and resting on top of the water to stabilize the boat. This command is called when we are letting others move position on the boat or it can also be called when a wave comes our way.

Race start commands:

Below are the commands you will hear at the start of a Dragon Boat Race;

•“We have Alignment”: All the boats on the start line are lined up evenly.

•“Paddlers are you Ready?”: The teams last chance to notify the start official if there is a problem in the boat.

•“Attention Please”: The boat needs to get in their start position ready to start.

•“Horn Blow”: This is our “GO” command!

The Stroke


Paddling is a full body sport and the boat will run smoothest and fastest when power is applied efficiently and in control using good stroke technique.  Like other paddling sports, good dragonboat technique involves engaging the largest, strongest muscles in the body to apply power.  Hips and torso must be engaged to make the boat go faster.  The stroke can be broken down into the following distinct parts:


•Set-up:  A full stroke begins and ends with the set-up, sometimes called the “paddles up” or “square in the air” position.  Paddler should be fully rotated with back to the shore and hinged forward in an “A-frame” with the paddle forming one leg of the “A”, the top arm and torso forming the other leg of the “A”, and the bottom arm as the bridge between the two legs.

•Catch:  The connection between the blade and the water at the front of the stroke so that efficient, effective power can be applied.  Blowing the catch is sometimes referred to as “whiffing” and usually results from rushing the set-up and/or the catch.  The catch is initiated by continuing to rotate and reach forward a little from the set-up.  Ideally, the blade is locked in position in the water with a clean entry and a slight positive angle by using stable, straight arms and a strong drive down from the upper torso without bobbing.

•Drive:  Once the blade is buried in the catch position (“plant before you pull”), power is initiated in the hips and legs (“leading with the hips”).  Power is applied using the legs and hips, lower torso, middle torso and upper back, in that order.  Optimum blade angle is maintained (vertical as long as possible) by using the bigger, stronger muscles of the hips and torso to apply power instead of the arms.

•Exit:  Blade is withdrawn from the water as the hips initiate the recovery (still “leading with the hips”).  If there is a good catch and good resistance on the blade during the drive, the blade should almost guide itself out of the water at the exit.

•Recovery:  Everything goes forward back to the set-up position.  The body movement should be quick and crisp but somewhat relaxed to allow for good reach and rotation.  Arms and blade should be brought back to the set-up using the hips and torso rather than leading with the arms.


Mastering technique and becoming a competitive paddler involves training like an athlete since paddling well requires strength, power, comprehensive core conditioning, aerobic conditioning, strength endurance, speed, agility, balance, etc.  Paddling is one of the best ways to achieve one’s fitness goals because it’s way more fun than pounding the pavement, grinding out a bunch of sets and doing boring cardio at the gym, or sweating with a bunch of other people in a dark, stuffy, poorly ventilated room.  Competition focuses the training program and the athlete like nothing else.


What you need:

•Paddle (duh! says Coach Polly):  Use a club paddle when just getting started, we have plenty (racing paddles must conform to certain specifications).  You may want to upgrade to a carbon fiber paddle once you’ve paddled for awhile and figured out what length of paddle is most comfortable.  Local vendors such as Dragonsports and Kialoa carry paddles and are at most festival races.  Sometimes the club will put an order together to take advantage of volume discounts.  Paddles start around $50 for wood paddles and are up to $300 for high-end, lightweight, carbon fiber paddles;

•Lifejacket again, the club has plenty.  You may want your own if you like to have lots of pockets for stuff and you prefer your own stale aroma to generic river funk;

•Seat cushion of some sort (optional):  Vendors carry Dragon Saddles or you can bring your own padding.  You can also get padded paddling shorts, or some padded bicycling shorts and pants work well.  The better your conditioning and gluteal buffness, the less cushioning necessary.

•Gloves:  not everyone wears them, they’re less necessary when you’ve paddled long enough that you no longer have a “death grip” on the paddle.  Gloves are recommended for windy winter days, it’s good to have a lighter windbreak pair and heavier waterproof pair for the really cold and wet days;

•Winter weather gear:  We’re on the water through the winter which is much more fun, even in the rain, than the stairway to nowhere at the gym.  Winter clothing should allow mobility and breathability (you can get quite hot even in the dead of winter once you are paddling).  Some paddling clothing works well but tends to be expensive, good closeout deals can often be found on bicycling or ski clothing.


What it costs:

•Club dues are $200 per year if paid annually (instead of installments), which is about $17/month (cheaper than a gym membership), or about $1.30/hour if you practice 3 times per week;

•Parking at the boathouse is free, the boathouse also has dressing rooms with showers at no charge;

•Race fees are typically $25-30 with a few races up to $50.  We usually do 4 to 6 races per year;

•Travel expenses for out-of-town races vary.  For one-day races in the Seattle area, the club or another Wasabi team may charter a tour bus which is usually around $25-30 per person (potentially festive on the way home….).  Typical races we travel to include Tacoma and Kent, Washington, Tempe Arizona, Vancouver BC, San Francisco, and San Diego.  We occasionally do an international race when there’s enough interest.  Most team members share some expenses for lodging and carpooling.


For more information, contact one of us.  Hope to see you on the water!


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