Long canoes decorated with ornate dragon’s heads on the bow and tails on the stern trace their origins back more than 2000 years in China, but in recent decades dragon boat racing has laid claim as one of the fastest growing water sports in the United States. More than 2 million people participate in races worldwide, including many along the East Coast.
Originally made of teak, most modern boats are fiberglass. The 40- to 48-foot boats carry teams of 20 paddlers, a drummer to synchronize their strokes, and a steersperson on the stern.
But a dragon boat festival isn’t just for those in the boats. The colorful events draw jubilant crowds of spectators to cheer on their teams and take part in the multicultural shoreside activities, which typically accompany races.
A course ranges from 200 to 1,000 meters. The sport appeals to a large swath of people, since the ability to work together is more important than individual physical strength.
For corporations, organizations and youth groups, dragon boating provides a fun team building activity. Many festivals raise funds for charitable activities, such as the Neuse River Day Dragon Boat Festival to be held in New Bern, N.C., June 2, which is benefiting the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation.
For others, dragon boats provide an unconventional path toward wellness. Many regattas have a BCS (breast cancer survivor) division and include a ceremony in which survivors and those who have loved ones affected by the disease all toss a carnation into the water. A team of cancer survivors from Charleston, S.C., is the subject of Awaken the Dragon, an inspirational documentary film by Liz Oakley (awaken thedragon.com) that has been making a splash on the film festival circuit.
In May, the fifth annual Charleston Dragon Boat Festival was expected to draw dozens of teams to the paddle on the Ashley River. At the same time, more than 30 teams were expected for the 12th annual Houston Dragon Boat Festival on Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston. Our nation’s capital has taken up the sport, with the 12th annual DC Dragon Boat Festival scheduled to have taken place on the Potomac River in mid-May. Last year, the latter event included the Out of Sight Dragons, a team of blind and visually impaired paddlers.
Most races take place on rivers and lakes, but a few are held on bays and even the Intracoastal Waterway. Hundreds of spectators cheered on six teams of firefighters, military personnel and youth racing along the ICW at the Perdido Key Dragon Boat Races and Festival in April.
Even the Sailing Capital of North Carolina, the small village of Oriental, mustered enough paddlers to start a Dragon Boat Festival in 2010. Its third annual event is slated for Aug. 10-11 along the Neuse River.
Florida hosts races from Tampa to Miami, and many points in between, including Walt Disney World, the site of the Orlando International Dragon Boat Festival. While many teams are packing their paddles for the winter, paddlers from as far away as Nova Scotia are expected to compete at that Oct. 20 event.
Race organizers usually hire companies to bring in the boats and trainers for the regatta. While some novice teams form for a single day with only a few practice runs before their actual races, other teams form clubs to acquire boats and train year-round. The most dedicated racers travel to competitions around the country, and even internationally.
The Southeastern Regional Dragon Boat Association will host its first Annual Regional Championship Oct. 27-28 in Sarasota, Fla., to qualify teams for the proposed 2013 national championship race. Paddles up!
Rob Lucey is All At Sea Southeast’s Texas correspondent, and contributes regularly to the magazine on all sorts of subjects.