From here to there: The magic of dragon boat racing

Saturday, August 7, 2010
Issue 1083, Page 4 – 9
Word count: 1836
Published in: Macau Daily Times – Weekend Times Magazine No. 52

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

Cheering and drum beats broke the tranquility in Nam Van Lake last week. Nearly 4,000 athletes from Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America and as far as the southern Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates descended on Macau with their racing paddles and marched into the purpose-built Nautical Centre, where boats of different sizes with decorative Chinese-style dragon heads and tails were eagerly waiting to fly on the water in the sun.

Authorised by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) and organised by the Macau Sport Development Board and the China (Macau) Dragon Boat Association, the 7th Club Crew World Championships (CCWC) 2010 was brought to Macau for the first time between July 28 and August 1.

Up to 100 dragon boat clubs from Australia, Canada, USA, Czech Republic, Germany, Guam, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago as well as Dubai came to compete for the title of world’s best.

The different nationalities of the paddlers said it all – nowadays the sport of dragon boat racing is no longer exclusive to the Chinese or Asian communities, despite the five-clawed creatures still being seen as a sacred and auspicious symbol in traditional Chinese culture.

There is something about it

Trinidad and Tobago is made up of two Caribbean islands between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Although the republic is exactly on the other side of the world and it took Excellent Stores Titans one day and a half to get to Macau via the US or England (since some of the members didn’t have an American visa), its captain Sheldon Chin told the Macau Daily Times that it was their dream to come to paddle in the Far East.

There is a small Chinese community in Trinidad and dragon boat racing got started in 2006 as a way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chinese arrival in the country.

Excellent Stores Titans is therefore familiar with all the Chinese traditions during the opening ceremony of the CCWC 2010.

“We drew the eyes on the dragon and then we beat the drum. We tried to mimic the best possible way as we could,” Chin said.

Currently there are 15 school and two corporate dragon boat teams, and the captain said they are now trying to expand the sport to Jamaica, Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean

Dragon boating, he added, is one of the fastest growing sports in Trinidad since it’s “easy to pick up, lets you breathe fresh air and get out of the house and the office”, but he also admitted that with a population of only 1.3 million and all the other different sports available, it’s not easy to get people to come and try something new.

“But once they do it they’ll normally stay with us,” he told the MDT.

Dubai Diggers was one of the three clubs representing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the CCWC 2010, and the crew is mainly formed by expats of around 10 different nationalities including Australians, South Africans, Nepalese and Filipinos.

Michael Schleidt, from Austria, has been working in Dubai and paddling for one and a half years. He started dragon boating as he was looking for a team water sport that is “competitive and also good fun”.

Dragon boat racing is becoming increasingly popular in Dubai where national tournaments are also being organised. “It’s a small country but dragon boating is quite big there actually,” Schleidt told the MDT.

Travelling all the way from the UAE to Macau could be tiring, but Dubai Diggers would never miss the chance to participate in world champs, which are not held often.

Schleidt also agreed that paddling a dragon boat is easy, but to become really good and a professional paddler would require a lot of hard work.

Moving to the European continent, in Germany, the sport of dragon boating is also being well-received with about 50 to 60 teams throughout the country, according to Christina Gerth from Zurian Masters, one of the six German clubs that qualified to enter last week’s CCWC.

Gerth told the MDT that dragon boating started to develop after the reunification in 1990, and some of her crew members began with paddling canoes or kayaks and then learned about this Chinese sport either through work or friends.

As for herself, Gerth started paddling while living in Toronto in 2002 and the experience quickly brought her a lot of friends, which was particularly important, as she was new to the town.

“It was fun and we were paddling together. So even when we spent a lot of time practising we still felt that we weren’t away from home,” she smiled.

In winter time Germany can get very cold and snowy. Gerth said her crew could still paddle almost all year round: “It depends on how you define cold and for us it’s not that bad”.

“Sometimes we practice in lakes or rivers and we can still paddle when there is little ice or snow.”

But when there is heavy snowfall no paddling practices will be conducted. “At that time I’ll feel something is missing,” she said.

Wondering if there were any dragon boat factories in Europe? Gerth said there is one exactly in the same town in northern Germany where Zurian Masters is from.

“When dragon boat racing got more and more popular in Germany, some guys realised that there was a market and then started building the boats.”

And every time when her club gets a new boat, Gerth said they will also follow the traditional rituals and dot the eyes of the dragon as a way to sanctify and bless the boat.

Training in the swimming pool

With lots of water and outdoor space, dragon boat racing seems to be the perfect sport in Canada. Having sent the largest number of teams to Macau for the CCWC, there is definitely something about dragon boat racing that fascinates the foreigners, no matter how old they are.

Gail Lynch, the captain of Heat’s women’s team whose paddlers are all 50 or 60 plus, said dragon boating is a sport for all ages.

“It’s easier for the seniors to do and we share a lot in common so we can build a strong relationship among us,” she told the MDT.

“To participate in world championships can show us that all our hard work has paid off.”

To some of the members in Heat’s men’s team, dragon boat racing is a team sport and a “social thing”.

It’s the “competitive spirit” that has been motivating the gentlemen to paddle at least for the past five years, “we want to defend our team’s last year’s title and also feel useful ourselves,” they laughed.

“It’s easy to pick up as you only need to learn one stroke and then do it many times. But it takes time to perfect… because of the bones and my age,” one of them said, with a smile on his face.

Because of the freezing cold winter in Canada, Heat will train in a swimming pool, “but as soon as the ice melts we will go outdoors”, Lynch said.

In Australia, dragon boat racing definitely cannot be missed. The nation has 15 teams entered into the CCWC, following Canada and Hong Kong.

Hurricane Paddling is a new club of only about eight months, but the sport of dragon boating is already quite well developed in Australia.

The coach of Hurricane, Marco Celenza, got himself into the sport in 1990 and he even met his wife paddling.

“One of my younger brothers was paddling before me and he kept trying to get me down there. And finally I said Ok I will go try and I haven’t looked back.”

Just like the other countries, dragon boat racing is very popular and “is growing” in Australia.

There was a national tournament in South Australia recently and a record number of 1,973 competitors raced in the event.

“We’re booked for Canada [the 2011 Club Crew World Championships to be held by the International Canoe Federation] next year and we’re expecting close to 2,500 competitors,” Celenza said.

Hurricane only had one day to decide if they were coming to Macau, “but we knew we would be coming because this is what we do it all for,” he said.

“We want to raise the bar and target to the highest level… it’s not going to come to you though, no pain no gain.”

‘People are fascinated’

Executive president of the International Dragon Boat Federation, Mike Haslam, believed that dragon boat racing has a strong potential not only in Asia but also all over the world.

“We have under 70 countries involved and probably will reach 70 this year. We get four or five new countries each year, and we’ve about 50 million participants throughout the world, mainly in Asia, something like 200,000 in North America and another 200,000 in Europe,” Haslam said.

To him, the reasons why the sport is growing so fast are that it’s “very easy to do, vibrant, inclusive and has a huge amount of history and culture attached to it.

“You can put 22 people in a dragon boat who have never seen the boat before, they just need to go through some safety instructions and basic paddling and within a few hours they can race,” he said.

Haslam told the MDT that saying dragon boat racing is limited to Chinese or Asian communities is just like saying “football is limited to England and the European countries”.

“It has a wonderful Chinese culture and history and people are fascinated by all things Chinese,” he said.

Dragon boat racing is growing particularly fast in the US, Canada and Australia, and the IDBF is now moving into Africa, South America and the Caribbean is also starting to develop the sport.

“Africa is particularly interesting to us because they have a similar tradition of racing long boats in the fishing communities,” Haslam said.

Africa waiting for boats

The IDBF has now got seven African countries but only one has boats.

Haslam said they’re getting dragon boats sent to these places this year and would expect to see them competing in international tournaments in the next four to five years. Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria are keen to develop the sport and would have come to Macau for the CCWC if they had the boats.

“They see dragon boating as a way to reconnect to their own youth and traditions through someone else’s [Chinese] traditions,” he said.

In the meantime, the IDBF is starting its work in Brazil and Chile, and also just got into Colombia and Argentina.

“As soon as you get boats to these countries, the sport will take off.”

There are 20 dragon boat factories around the world, and a boat made in China will cost between USD 5,000 and 6,000, while those produced in the UK and Germany – “the top quality ones” according to Haslam and were used in the CCWC – can cost up to almost USD 10,000.


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