This blog was originally published in 2007, and gives an insider perspective of what it’s like to paddle in a dragon boat on race day
Paddling a dragon boat is unlike paddling any other water craft. Even though it is very similar to an Outrigger canoe, it isn’t exactly the same. Practicing in a dragon boat is much different than racing in a one of these 46-foot long boats. One coach said, “Racing is controlled chaos.” And it is, really. Especially when the adrenaline is pumping through your veins and you think about the potential of your team beating everyone else to that last buoy.
When the coach says “Paddles Up,” a rush of excitement, fear of failing and drive to paddle your heart out consumes you all at once. Then, you start paddling those deliberately long strokes and you’re reaching as far as possible, clinching teeth, straining, not even feeling the energy of the boat until it feels like you’re gliding. You realize someone is counting and you are operating this lightweight paddle through the water. You’re actually not doing so badly. Through your rush of adrenaline, your brain recalls that the process involves following the person two seats in front of you on the opposite side. Watch for the paddle in the air, hit the water with it when they hit. Listen to the count the coach yells; listen to the beat of the drum, unless you’ve tuned out everything except your own heartbeat. Reach so far you’re nearly out of your seat, hanging out the side of the boat giving it every atom of energy in your being. “Give the best you can give on this day,” good coaching advice.
The next piece of the race technique is an intense adrenaline ride. These are the fast strokes. It is the controlled chaos. You are paddling faster, and you think for a quick second if you get any more rocket on that power you could lose your paddle in the water. Listen to the coach or drummer shouting the count to you and move the paddle with the count. Keep looking up, again spot the paddler on the opposite side, two seats up and watch for the paddles up. Your paddle should be up at that moment. Coming out of the count and into the gradual extension to longer, deeper strokes brings you closer to the finish. These strokes win or lose a close race. Reach, and keep reaching, maintaining the paddles up everyone else has perfected, with the beat of the drummer in front, move your body with the person in front of you. Reach farther, spear your paddle into the water like a warrior, like the Chinese statesman who inspired the sport, explode with your final burst of energy until the coach finally yells, “Let it run.” You wonder if you remembered to breathe. Breathing is important. You are breathing now, fire through your veins, like the dragon.
You are experiencing the boat… You are getting the race experience.