A dragon boat is a very long and narrow canoe-style human-powered boat. It is now used in the team paddling sport of Dragon Boat racing which originated in China over 2000 years ago. While competition has taken place annually for more than 20 centuries as part of folk ritual, it emerged in modern times as an international "sport" in Hong Kong in 1976. For competition events, dragon boats are generally rigged with decorative dragon Chinese dragon heads and tails. At other times the decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for training purposes. In some areas of China, the boats are raced without dragon adornments. Dragon boat races are traditionally held as part of the annual Duanwu Festival observance in China. 19th century European observers of the racing ritual, not understanding the significance of Duan Wu, referred to the spectacle as a "dragon boat festival". This is the term that has become known in the West.

Similar to outrigger canoe (va'a) racing but unlike competitive rowing and canoe racing, dragon boating has a rich fabric of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious traditions. In other words, the modern competitive aspect is but one small part of this complex of watercraftsmanship.

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed to have originated in southern central China more than 2,500 years ago, along the banks of such iconic rivers as the Chang Jiang, also known as Yangtze (that is, during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia). Dragon boat racing as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations, and for the traditional veneration of the Asian dragon water deity, has been practiced continuously since this period. The celebration is an important part of ancient agricultural Chinese society, celebrating the summer rice harvest. Dragonboat racing activity historically was situated in the Chinese sub-continent's southern-central "rice bowl": where there were rice paddies, so were there dragonboats.

A standard dragon boat crew is typically 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 helm (a steerer) standing at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats however vary in length and the crew size will change accordingly, from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers up to the traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and helm. In the area around the Tian He District of Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, the paddlers will increase to 80 or more.

 

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