Paddles slice the water; a drum beats steadily; a legendary creature embellishes a boat’s bow. Welcome to the world of dragon boat racing. This ancient sport combines strength, teamwork, and a bit of passion.
Ornately carved teak dragon boats originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. The boats appeared during festivals to celebrate summer rice planting. They remain part of that country’s folklore.
Dragon boat racing as a competitive sport began in the 1970s. Today’s vessels are made of modern, lightweight materials, including the traditional decorative dragon heads and tails.
Before joining the U.S. dragon boat program, Ethan Palmer was a rower and kayaker. He calls dragon boating “unlike any other paddle sport.” Ten or 20 paddlers sit tightly bunched on benches in rows of two. The narrow vessels don’t seem big enough to handle all those bodies. At the back of the boat, a steersperson stands, handling the rudder. A drummer sits in the front, facing the crew. The drummer beats out a rhythm. His job is to keep the paddlers stroking in unison.
“That’s a lot of people to get rowing perfectly in sync,” Palmer says. “There is no room for error.”
The Apostle Paul beat the unity drum throughout the New Testament. He often reminded believers to be “of the same mind,” “in full accord,” and “living in harmony.” The goal of Paul’s encouragement was keeping Christians focused on glorifying God by following His perfect will.
American paddler Swati Kadam took up dragon boating as a stress reliever. She soon realized it was much more.
“Dragon boating is not just about communities coming together, it’s not just about strength, it’s not just about being fast,” Kadam says. “It’s working together. It’s thinking what everyone is thinking, feeling the boat. . . . It’s about all of that—the passion that drives the boat forward.”
Dragon boat competitors are hopeful of one day getting their sport into the Olympics. Currently, the International Canoe Federation runs the sport, so dragon boating wouldn’t need to be approved as a new sport. It also wouldn’t require expensive different venues, a big plus. But the 12- and 22-person crews mean more athletes at the summer games—something that may give the International Olympic Committee pause.
At the very least, dragon boat racing seems to fit with the Olympic committee’s goal of appealing to a more youthful demographic. As Palmer says, “Everybody who sees dragon boat loves it.”
Kadam is hopeful. “To have the Olympic symbol on [dragon boating],” she says. “That’s all we’re missing right now.”