So, what is Dragon Boat Racing all about then? Well, there are three main aspects – the boats, the teams and the races. These will be covered later.
But firstly, a word on the structure here in Australia. The Official Governing Body for all Dragon Boat Racing in Australia is the Australian Dragon Boat Federation (AusDBF).
Each State Association is a member of the National body. In South Australia, DragonBoat SA is that body, in which there are 14 Affiliated Clubs. The Association conducts a competition consisting of 4 Divisions: Junior (under 18 years), Premier (19-39), Masters (40+), Grand Masters (50+) and B-Grade.
The International Governing Body is the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF).
There are three lengths of boat: the long boat, holding up to 40 paddlers, is very rare outside Southeast Asia and looks fairly difficult to manoeuvre; the small boat holding up to 10 people; and the usual boat length of approx 13m long and 1m wide, holding up to 20 paddlers. They have a decorative dragon’s head in the bow and a tail in the stern. These are made of moulded fibreglass construction.
There’s only one type of race in this sport – tough! It can occur over several distances. Short races, held at almost every event are 200 metres. The standard race is 500m. Occasionally, to round off an event, a 1 km or 2 km race might be held.
History of Dragon Boating
More than 2000 years ago in the Chinese Kingdom of Chu, there lived a poet-statesman called Qu Yuan. He was an honest man who was dearly loved by the people. The government of the kingdom of Chu was however, a corrupt one, and many of the courtiers resented Qu Yuan’s talent, his sense of righteousness and his popularity. They finally convinced the Emperor that it was, in fact Qu Yuan who was a corrupt influence and he was banished from the kingdom.
For many years after, Qu Yuan wandered the countryside composing poems about his love for the people until, one day, perhaps unable to bear his sorrow any longer, or maybe as a final protest against the corrupt government of the time, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River.
Local fishermen who witnessed this desperate act dashed to their boats and attempted to rescue Qu Yuan. They were unsuccessful but in an attempt to prevent the hungry fish from eating the poet’s body, they beat the water furiously with their paddles. As a sacrifice to his spirit, the fishermen then threw rice dumplings, wrapped in silk, into the river.
The tragic death of Qu Yuan is commemorated each year on the fifth day of the fifth moon when the fishermen’s frantic attempt to save the poet is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races. Also at this time of the year, in keeping with the legend, rice cakes are made, but instead of being thrown into the water, are enjoyed by everyone.
It is not clear how the actual dragon-head and prow came into being – it is unlikely that the original boats used to try to save Qu Yuan were similarly decorated – it is thought that, during the evolution of the races over the years, the fierce-looking dragon-heads were added to ward off evil water spirits.