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Should Dragon Boat Racing Be The Next Craze?


Sport of Dragon Boat Racing Continues to Gain Popularity

Dragon boat racing, an ancient sport which originated in China thousands of years ago, continues to gain popularity as an international sport with membership flourishing.  Tournaments and races are scheduled in some of the world’s most intriguing settings including Israel’s legendary Sea of Galilee, the floating city of Venice in Italy, and Freeport, the resort center of Grand Bahama Island in the Caribbean.

Often recognized as a professional tournament sport, dragon boat racing is branching out in other areas as well.  Festival hosts invite racers of all ages to join in on the fun and festivities by registering individual teams to race for a cure, raise funds for a cause, or simply paddle together as a team-building experience. 

Whether the crew is professional or amateur, dragon boat racing is an ultimate team sport which requires the crew to work together in harmony, strength, and endurance.  Crews are typically made up of twenty paddlers, one drummer, and one steerer each with unique yet unified functions. 

The drummer acts as the team’s captain and calls out needed pace changes to keep the crew in sync.  The steerer keeps the boat on course and the paddlers (the pacers, the engine room, and the rockets) propel the boat forward. After training together for weeks or even months, crews of adrenaline-charged paddlers set sail on race day.

Local waterways spring to life as colorful parades of dragon boats drift into view.  Ominous-looking carved dragon heads perched high at the bows lead crews of paddlers quietly to allotted horizontal racing lanes along the waterway.  Team chants arise from the boats as crews connect with themselves, each other, and possibly the divine in preparation for the day’s competition.  Then the horn sounds and the race for the finish line begins.

While celebrations today are commonly referred to as Dragon Boat Festivals traditional and statutory festivities are known also as Duanwu Festival and the Double Fifth. Duanwu Festival honored Qu Yuan, a great patriotic poet who was exiled for 20 years in the latter part of the Warring States Period in China thousands of years ago. 

Legend has it that on the fifth day of the fifth month, Qu Yuan felt hopeless over the future of his country and drowned himself by walking into the Milou River carrying a heavy rock.  Countrymen made attempts to retrieve the poet’s body from the river and fed the fish pyramid-shaped zongzi (dumpling) to keep them away from Qu Yuan’s body.  However, the poet’s body was never recovered but his patriotism left an indelible mark for generations to come and Qu Yuan’s memory is honored annually through the Duanwu Festival.

Other legends state that Double Fifth festivities were timed annually on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month based on the traditional Chinese calendar.  The timing of festivities also had ties to the summer solstice which occurs annually around June 21.  The mythical dragon was purported to be a revered deity and of great importance in ancient Chinese culture.  Dragons were customarily thought to be the rulers of many things including rivers, lakes, seas, clouds, mists, and rains. 

The Dragon Boat Festival began as a ritual for honoring the dragon at the onset of the agricultural season and at the time rice seedlings were transplanted to rice paddies, around the fifth of May.   Ritual festivities were designed to garner goodwill from the dragon, gain protection against pestilence and disease, and prevent misfortune. 

Festival traditions included cutting shapes from red paper in the shapes of lizards, toads, snakes, centipedes, and scorpions.  The paper shapes were placed in the mouths of carved dragon heads in hopes that the shapes would lure evil spirits away.  Traditional food prepared for the festivities included zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) wrapped in bamboo leaves or reed and shaped into triangles.  Many varieties of zongzi are shared today including zongzi stuffed with dates, walnuts, meat, eggs, rice, and fruits.

Another interesting tradition known as the awakening of the dragon may be performed at the beginning of the dragon race by VIPs who dot the dragon’s eyes with a paint brush dipped in red paint to awaken and re-energize the dragon in preparation for the day’s races.

Today, the international sport of dragon boat racing has gained popularity for a variety of reasons including celebrating cultural diversity, dragon boat racing’s corporate team-building qualities, opportunities to modify racing events as fundraisers allowing most anyone to participate, and as simple family fun activities.  Dragon boat racing also offers a new avenue to raise public awareness of breast cancer as crews of breast cancer survivors paddle in competitions worldwide.



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