There is nothing like a dragon boat race.
The roar of the paddlers calling time, the drummer, the pounding of paddles pulling through the water, an undulating dragon skimming across the top of the ocean…
Boasting a 2,000-year history in Southern China, dragon boating stems from traditional fishing and Chinese folklore, which came together to form the Dragon Boat Festival – a public holiday and a day full of races in rivers and oceans all over Asia.
Some say that Dragon Boat Festival is held in honour of an honest poet who was killed by an emperor. Others say the man was a political rebel who drowned himself after growing disillusioned with those in power. In both cases, fishermen went out on the water, threw rice and pounded the surface with their paddles to scare away and distract the fish from feasting on his body. Lovely. On the other hand, many people say that the sport was simply thought up by competitive fishermen…
No matter how dragon boat racing first came about, what all present paddlers can agree on is the ferocious rowing power needed, the butterfly-symmetry of partnering rowers in the longboat and the deep rumble of the drum keeping the rowers in time; the dragon’s heartbeat.
And the best place to compete in Hong Kong is at Stanley. Though you have to sacrifice your public holiday morning lie-in for a 5am or 6am start, the races are worth it. The beach is packed with pumped teams in matching jerseys and enthusiastic spectators vying for the best view.
This year was my fourth dragon boat season as a paddler, and my second time competing at Stanley. In the morning sun, the longboats are lined up ready on the beach, painted with brightly-coloured scales. The dragon’s head fixed at the front of each boat has its nostrils flared, moustache blowing in the wind with its eyes bloodshot and bulging out of the sockets! The tail is flicked out at the rear, a thrashing spike that will trail foam and fizz in its wake when the race begins.
My first dragon boat race at the 2012 Deep Water Bay Regatta (front on the right):
Our first race of the day was at 8.45am. After warming up on the beach, we headed to boat number 13 and got in position. Women raised their hands for the officials to check we had the minimum number competing for the mixed category before we paddled out to the racing area.
In all the excitement and with the butterflies for the first race of the day fluttering in my stomach, I had forgotten my gloves and worried that I would blister my hands on the splintered wooden paddle. It’s not unheard of for paddles to snap mid-race.
Once at the starting line, our drummer held onto the roped life buoy to keep us in position and we placed our paddles ready on the sides of the boat. We listened to the adjudicators, moving forward or back as instructed.
The klaxon sounded and we were off on our starting sequence: three long, deep strokes, then a step up to a slightly faster three, then a speedy ten turning from the shoulder and a final ten at our fastest speed to get the boat going. Then we settled into our pace calling ‘Ready, and, REACH!’ but lost our timing in the transition. Paddling at the front, I could feel the boat lurching out of time with our strokes, but in such a quick race there is no time to correct it.
At Stanley, you race towards the beach, and when the nose of the dragon touches the finish line – that’s your time. However, there are only a few metres to stick the oars in the water to hold the boat and slow it from racing speed to stop it hurtling onto the sand, which is packed with other teams, race officials and spectators.
We looked up at our friends watching from the vantage point above us and they showed us six fingers. We had come sixth. It was a respectable place and put us firmly in the next heat. We were impressed with our time of 1min 17secs (the water was calm with very little chop), but we knew we could have been faster and our poor timing had slowed us down. Then again, any faster and we could have been fast-tracked to the top tier of teams where we would have struggled to compete.
The next race wasn’t until 1.40pm, so we returned to the junk and refueled, watched the GoPro video taken by our drummer and strategised how to improve for the next race. We were aiming for a time of 1min 10 secs and entry into the gold plate final. Last year we had come fourth in the silver plate, and our goal this year was to reach the gold level.
This time we were even more nervous as we paddled up to the starting line in boat number 8 (a lucky number in Chinese culture), our focus on the best result this time. There was no room for error. Clouds had covered the sun and the water wasn’t as calm as before. Perhaps that dream time of 1min 10secs would be out of reach today.
The adjudicators took forever asking boats to move forward and back before announcing ‘attention’ and everyone put their paddles up in unison.
‘Go!’ he called and we pulled back on our oars, starting the sequence again.
‘Stop! Stop!’ came faint calls over the shouting and drumming as slowly everyone came to realise it had been a false start. The adjudicator had called ‘Go’ but the klaxon hadn’t sounded. As one of the first teams to realise this, we didn’t have far to paddle back, but most teams had raced for the finish line full of energy, and then had to paddle back further too. As they paddled up out of breath, we knew we had an advantage now too.
When the klaxon sounded again and we started our sequence, we were slicker and transitioned better into our steady rowing pace. We had agreed that the rowers in the middle were to call out the timing to keep everyone together.
The lightest paddlers should always be at either end of the boat with the heavier ‘engines’ in the middle to give the boat its power. However, again, we got out of sync as the pace was too fast for everyone to keep up. But when we crossed the finish line we saw that we had come second – an incredible feat considering we still weren’t paddling at our best. And, most importantly, we had reached our goal – we were in the gold plate final.
Then there was another agonising wait as our next race was scheduled for 5.07pm. Rain fell in the afternoon and the races were delayed. We had also begun to crash, tired from the early start and the bursts of sudden adrenaline. Some napped, others had a drink to take the edge off and calm nerves. We warmed up and waited on the beach, practising our timing on land by calling out the strokes.
This time, we decided, everyone would call out every stroke together. It was a risk because we would be wasting our much-needed breath, but we knew that the key to speed was in perfect coordination, not in strength or power or how fast you could paddle. As long as one person’s oar is pulling while someone else’s is stuck in the water, the boat is being held back and the strokes are being wasted.
We paddled out in the evening sun, and this time I wasn’t nervous. It was our last race of the day and we wanted to enjoy it, and it was bittersweet as I knew this would be my last dragon boat race in Hong Kong. We called out good luck to the boats either side of us and stuck our oars in deep in the water ready for the klaxon.
As the race started and we pulled into the starting sequence, I could barely control my breath. The start was perfect and as we called out each stroke to transition into our regular pace we were going faster than we should have been but the adrenaline helped us sustain the speed and, at last, we were in perfect time. Watching the video back (see below), the symmetry is incredible. We couldn’t have paddled better.
My eyes were focused on my partner and the paddler diagonally in front of me – the technique used to ensure we were all flawlessly in sync. But behind them I could see the boat next to us pulling up alongside ours. We were neck-and-neck for the whole length of the race.
As we approached the final straight we called for power over the stroke timing, ‘REACH! REACH! REACH!‘ pushing through the final few strokes to try and get our dragon over the finish line first.
As we crossed the line and pulled on our paddles to hold the boat, we weren’t sure whether to celebrate. Had we won? Had we placed? It was impossible to tell. Our drummer said she thought we had come second, but it had been very close. Everyone was still in good spirits, splashing each other in the water and celebrating with beers on the beach.
Our Gold Plate Final Race (second from front, on the right):
We waited what seemed like forever for the results to come in. It had been a photo finish and the judges needed to confirm the final times. When the results finally came through we were astounded – we had come sixth out of thirteen boats, but we were only 0.8 seconds behind first place! In a race so close that half of the boats had finished within the same second, we had practically come joint first (and that’s the story we’re sticking with!)! Not only had we reached our goal of ‘going for gold’ and getting into the gold plate final, we had finished with a respectable place and paddled the best race we had ever rowed.
There were more beers back on the junk and celebrations throughout the evening. We had come so close to the top spot, but no one was bitter or had any regrets.
Four years ago, I participated in my first dragon boat competition at the Deep Water Bay Regatta, where the Chatteris Dragonfruits had just been happy not to come last in their hot pink jerseys! This year I had competed at gold plate level at Stanley and come millimetres away from first place. You can’t complain about that!
Sadly, next year I won’t be around in Hong Kong to compete in the races again, though I’m hopeful to find a dragon boat team (or start a dragon boat team) wherever I end up next. I never thought I’d consider myself to be a rower, but that first race four years ago sparked a passion for the sport and I hope I can continue to row in the future too.
As our junk headed for Aberdeen harbour, we saw a pink dolphin jump alongside our boat. Critically endangered, Hong Kong’s pink dolphins are rare to see even off Lantau where they usually live, let along south of Hong Kong Island next to the coast. It seemed like a sign and the perfect ending to a wonderful day and a wonderful five years in Hong Kong.
IP Global Dragons, it has been a pleasure. Next year, I expect to see you all at cup level!
Photos by IP Global Ltd