What is dragon boating?
Dragon boating is a fast and furious sport that that involves long, canoe-shaped boats propelled by paddlers who sit in pairs facing forwards. The paddlers paddle to the beat of a drum made by a drummer sitting at the front of the boat, and the boat is steered by a person standing at the back of the boat.
International races are held over distances of 200m, 500m, and 2,000m but local race distances can be quite different.
Races are done using two sizes of boat. ‘Standard’ boats can seat up to 20 paddlers and ‘small’ boats up to 10.
Modern racing boats are made from fibreglass. For race events, boats are ‘dressed’ with a dragon’s head at the front and the dragon’s tail at the rear. These additions recognise the origins of the sport, which were in China over 2,500 years ago, and they add colour and vibrancy to the sport.
What would be the benefits to me of dragon boating?
Dragon boating is a sport that offers a wide range of benefits to anyone, whether or not you are living with an impairment.
First of all, it is excellent for all round fitness. Paddling a dragon boat requires use of a lot of your muscle groups, particularly those in your upper body and trunk. It will also place high demands on your cardiovascular system. However, and this is important, you do not have to be any Olympic athlete to get started; the beauty of dragon boating is that you will get fitter, but in a really enjoyable way!
Secondly, it is a fantastic team sport. In a dragon boat team performance is more important than individual excellence – you win or lose together! No other sport anywhere in the world requires so many people to be doing exactly the same thing as each other at exactly the same time – if the team does not paddle in time, it will not go as fast as a team that does. So you can be the strongest, toughest, fittest person in the boat but if you don’t paddle at the same time as everyone else, you are actually of little use to the team. Dragon boating brings people together to chase common goals, to beat other teams, to enjoy sport as a team.
Dragon boat racing is competitive, but it is also fun! You will get tired, even become exhausted, but it is not a contact sport so the chance of injury is low. And, wow, when your team paddles faster than it has ever done before, what a feeling! Medals are great, but knowing your team could not have done any better is actually one of the best feelings going.
One question a lot of people ask is do you need to be able to swim to participate. The answer is no. It is a water sport and, very rarely, boats do capsize so it is possible for someone to end up in the water. If you are a non-swimmer you will be required to wear a buoyancy aid (and there are some places where local rules make the wearing of buoyancy aids mandatory for all paddlers, regardless of their swimming ability).
Dragon boating is a global sport. It will open up opportunities for travel to races in other countries, to perhaps becoming part of your national team. However, and wherever you race, you will make new friends, and see places you will otherwise never have seen.
Because of the nature of the sport, dragon boating can really aid recovery and rehabilitation. Not only does it help your strength, fitness, coordination and suppleness, it also helps you engage with other people and widen your social circle. And the discipline and teamwork required is excellent for mental health too.
All in all, dragon boating will also improve your self-esteem, your confidence, and your self-discipline – what’s there not to like?!!
A brief history of the sport
It is said that the origins of dragon boat racing can be traced back to well over 2,500 years ago in southern central China. Then it formed part of ancient ceremonial, ritualistic and religious ceremonies and festivals. The modern-day sport has its origins in Hong Kong with expatriate communities becoming increasingly interested in the local dragon boat races held there. So popular was the sport becoming that, in 1976, the first ever international races were held in Hong Kong and these annual races have continued ever since.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the sport grew in popularity and race events started being held in other countries. But 1991 really marks the start of the ‘modern era’ of dragon boating. On 24th June that year, in Hong Kong, the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) was formally founded by Australia, China, Chinese Taipei, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Norway, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States. IDBF was established to manage the sport globally and to develop rules of racing that would be universally adopted.
In 1995, in Yue Yang, China, the first-ever World Dragon Boat Racing Championships was held. A total 14 countries entered national teams. In the following year, in Vancouver, Canada, IDBF held its first Club Crew World Championships. Since then, the pattern has repeated with championships between national teams held one year and then individual clubs from around the world competing against each other the next.
Continental federations also now exist and they hold their own continental championships. At the national level, racing is also organised by national federations which usually culminate in national championships held annually.
So, wherever you are in the world, there is likely to be some dragon boat racing nearby that will be conducted in accordance with international rules and which will feature the colour and traditions of this most ancient sport.
Who or what are Paradragons
The term ‘Paradragon’ describes both the individual paddler and a class of racing. To be a Paradragon paddler, you must be living with a physical, psychological, neurological, sensory, developmental or intellectual impairment. The impairment can be mild or severe – there is no minimum threshold, and the sport tries to accommodate those with even the most challenging impairments.
‘Paradragon’ also refers to a class of racing, where Paradragon paddlers can compete against other Paradragon paddlers. IDBF has a special set of race rules that set out the criteria for Paradragon racing and how individual impairments are addressed.
Around the world there are many dragon boat clubs who have teams that compete in local Paradragon racing. But IDBF runs international Paradragon racing too! In 2022, in Sarasota, USA, the first ever Paradragon races were run as part of IDBF’s 13th Club Crew World Championships. In 2023, in Pattaya, Thailand, international Paradragon teams will compete against each other in IDBF’s 16th World Dragon Boat Racing Championships.
Can I really do it?
Almost certainly, a resounding ‘yes’!
Almost regardless of your degree of impairment, there is likely to be a way you can experience the exhilaration and challenges of dragon boating. Of course, the sport carries risks and safety will always paramount, but the vast majority of people with an impairment will be able to participate. And age and gender are also not obstacles.
If you’ve lost limbs, or lost the function of one or more of your limbs, no problem. Even though dragon boating is a paddling sport, as long as you have one functional arm, you can paddle!
You are wheelchair-bound – so what? As long as you can get yourself from your wheelchair onto the seat in the dragon boat (with or without help), you can paddle!
You are vision-impaired, or blind. Not an issue. Dragon boats paddle to the beat of a drum. Around the world there are numerous dragon boat teams that comprise only vision-impaired or blind paddlers.
You are hearing-impaired, even deaf. Easy. As long as you can see, you can pick up the timing from those in front of you.
You are living with PTSD or some other mental health or neurological issues. Who cares? We certainly don’t and you may even prove to be as powerful and strong as the best paddlers in the world.
You live with some other impairment that you might previously have thought ruled you out of a team sport. Think again! Give dragon boating a go and be prepared to be surprised!
Are there clubs in my area?
Around the world there are clubs that have been specifically established for Paradragons and there are (more) clubs that have not but which welcome Paradragon paddlers. Unless you know of a club near you, a good starting point is to get in touch with the national point of Paradragon contact for your country.
How to find out more
If you’ve not found the answers yet to your questions about Paradragons and whether or not you can try the sport, then send an email to the Para Athletes Commission.