Do you want to be part of the world’s fastest growing water sport? Want to get fit and have fun? Come and try dragon boating!

This article will be an introduction to dragon boating and I will try to share the interesting aspects about dragon boating, from its history and its present international reach. In particular, I will try to draw from my own experience in dragon boating, having been dragon boating and coaching for the last few years.

What is dragon boating?

First of all, dragon boating involves paddling and not rowing. So I am a paddler and not a rower. Similar to being in a kayak or canoe, I face forward in the boat and I use a paddle. For rowers on the other hand, they face backwards in the boat and they operate an oar.

Every day I'm paddling
Row, row, row your boat | Source: here

Secondly, dragon boating is an ancient sport and its origins can be traced back over  a thousand years. Dragon boating is closely associated with the legend of a much-respected Chinese court official named Qu Yuan who lived sometime in 270 B.C. In the ultimate form of protest against the corruption of the government, he drowned himself in a lake.

Upon learning of his suicide, the common people rushed out to the lake in their long fishing boats. They beat their drums and splashed their paddles to try to scare away the fishes from the body. They also scattered rice into the water. It is therefore said that dragon boating emerged from this and now dragon boating is now closely associated with the rice dumpling (‘zongzi’) festival.

To this day, the distinctive features of a dragon boat are the the brightly coloured dragon heads attached to the front of the boats, with a drummer hitting the drum attached to the front of the boat, and dragon scales running along the sides with the tail peeking out of the water.


So is dragon boating only an Asian sport?

Definitely not. Dragon boating is thriving in countries and regions ranging from Australia, America, Canada, Africa, the Middle East, and of course all throughout Asia. There are more than 50 million dragon boaters around the world.

International dragon boaters

The governing body is the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF). The body governs all aspects of the sport and sets out rules and regulations for races. In particular, there are set specifications to govern the dimensions of dragon boat paddles and dragon boats. So there is standardisation for the equipment used all around the world.

How many people can fit in a dragon boat?

When referring to the sport of dragon boating, the standard-sized dragon boat will fit up to 20 paddlers, with one drummer and a steerer who stands at the back.

There is also the small dragon boat which will fit up to 10 paddlers, with one drummer and a steerer.

The steerer stands at the back of the boat and whose task is to steer and control the boat using the steering oar. The drummer provides a constant rhythm through the beating of the drum.

In dragon boat races, there are different categories. Ranging from the under-23 youth category, to the over-40 and even the over-50, there are different categories for all ages. There are also different team configurations for the boats consisting of teams which are all-men, all-women and a mixed category for both men and women.

What is a dragon boat race like?

A dragon boat race will involve several boats racing in a straight line, and the common distances are 200m (which is the sprint distance), 500m (the standard distance) as well as the the 1km or 2km distances (being the long-distance event).

The key to a dragon boat race will be for the paddlers to ensure that they are completely in sync. Their paddles must enter and exit at the same time.

What is the dragon boating scene like in Malaysia?

There are regular dragon boat competitions held in Putrajaya, Sabah, Malacca and Penang, with participants from Malaysia and overseas.

Penang International Dragon Boat Festival
Malacca Dragon Boat Race
Putrajaya International Dragon Boat Festival

In Malaysia, there are teams from the police and the navy, as well as governmental bodies. Among the universities, MMU Malacca and Universiti Kuala Lumpur MIMET (based in Lumut, Perak) are particularly active in the competitions.

Dragon boating is also slowly catching on in the corporate scene. With the sport’s emphasis on teamwork, synchronisation and camaraderie, it is a natural fit as a teambuilding exercise for companies and organisations. The law firm SKRINE has its own corporate dragon boat team, the SKRINE Dragons, for several years now (and I paddle with this team).

I also paddle with another club team, the KL Barbarians, which is a team open to everyone who wants to join and try out dragon boating.

The KL Barbarians

How do I get involved in dragon boating?

Try and locate a club team near you. Unfortunately, there are not that many club teams out there which you can easily join with only a few states in Malaysia with active dragon boating communities.

If you are based near KL and you are interested in trying out dragon boating, come on over and contact the KL Barbarians where we regularly hold introductory workshops. The team is in fact holding the next intro session on Sunday, 14 July 2013, from 9 am to 12 pm.

The teams in KL generally train in Putrajaya, as there are dragon boats for rent at the Putrajaya Maritime Centre. There are world-class facilities there with a beautiful lake to paddle in.

The Putrajaya Lake

All of this sounds very fun. Is dragon boating safe and do I need to swim?

The sport is safe, and the proper precautions need to be taken. For the teams I paddle with, life vests (although the proper term is actually Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs) are compulsory for the paddlers at all times whether you can swim or not. The areas where I train and dragon boat in also have calm waters and are not out in the open sea or river. So in Putrajaya, we dragon boat in a large man-made lake and with proper safety boats patrolling the area to ensure safety.

It is advisable to know how to swim, but I tell my paddlers that as long as you are not afraid to be in the water, and you keep the life vest on, that should be fine. I regularly conduct capsize drills and water confidence tests as well to acclimatise the paddlers to being in the water.

Do I need to be very fit to pick up dragon boating? I don’t have strong arms.

A lot of people commonly think that dragon boating requires strong arms to paddle. Dragon boating actually utilises a lot of the larger muscle groups such as the upper and lower back, and the shoulders, and engages a lot of the core to do all the paddling.

Just like superheroes, we wear spandex

From the introductory sessions I have conducted, everyone is able to paddle after that one session and to understand how to paddle in time. Of course, it will take a while to hone your technique, to work on synchronisation and to build up your fitness. But dragon boating is a sport anyone can pick up and there is no minimum level of fitness required. With paddlers being able to burn more than 2,000 calories in one dragon boating session, it is also a great way to lose weight.

Any closing words?

Dragon boating has been a life-changing experience for me. My team mates have become my family and we stand by each other. This is understandable since we spend so much time together, both on and off the boat, providing each other with motivation and the knowledge that we have each other’s back. It is a team sport with a complete emphasis on the team. There is no individual who can be a superstar and we can only progress together as a team.

Dragon Boat Family

Hopefully with this small peek into the world of dragon boating, you will be interested to give it a try and to find out more.


All photos in this article are property of the writer unless credited otherwise.

Lee Shih is a corporate litigator and has a passion for international arbitration, corporate litigation and insolvency work. He juggles work with his other passion of dragon boating with the KL Barbarians...

9 replies on “Riding Dragons: Be a Dragon Boater”

  1. Introduction to Riding Dragons: About time that the obnoxious dragon boaters as a final point got cut off and now know what it impressions like to not be the most main thing on the option.

  2. im new in KL and Ive been paddling since 2003. Aside from Putrajaya are there any other place where you do water training? Putrajaya is quite far from my place and upon checking google maps it would take me around 2hrs to get there. I would really love to paddle again. Been on a hiatus 3 months after the 2014 Mys Intl Dragonboat Fest.

  3. Hello,A dragon boat is a long, thin kayak style boat that is utilized as a part of the team paddling sport of dragon boat dashing, a convention which started in China in excess of two thousand years prior.Dragon boat races are held as a feature of the yearly Duanwu Festival in China, and the custom has developed in the past a few decades as a worldwide sport.Dragon boats are purported on the grounds that they are normally fixed at their finishes with beautiful Chinese dragon heads and tails.Good day.~Lisha Martin.

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  5. Dragon bating is so much fun and it’s different from other boating because in this instead of rowing the paddling is involved. Its history is quite ancient as this was originated in China for the purpose to honor their beloved hero Qu Yuan.

  6. What a great write up!! How could you not want to try the sport out after reading this! Love the photos, they capture the camaraderie of the team. Paddles UP!

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