What is dragon boating?

Born of a time-honored Chinese tradition, dragon boating today is the second most popular team sport in the world. Only soccer surpasses it. There are nearly 50 million people who currently take part annually in dragon boat races worldwide. Dragon boat races are held in countries all around the world. There are nearly 50 million people who currently take part annually in dragon boat races worldwide. The majority of the racers are in China and the Far East. It is estimated that over 150,000 participants are in Europe, 50,000 in North America, and 20,000 in Australasia.

The sport was introduced in Canada at the World Championship Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver of June 1996. Today, you can find dragon boat teams in every major Canadian city. The sport has been slower to arrive in the United States, but its growth is steadily rising. America has a United States Dragon Boat Federation that sponsors world-class teams in the men's, women's, and mixed crew division. It is a sport thatembraces different ages, genders, and ability levels. Premier athletes have joined the sport of dragon boating. The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) holds World Dragon Boat Racing Championships for national teams on odd numbered years. On even-numbered years, the IDBF Club Crew World Championships are held for crews representing their own clubs, and not their countries.

What is the History of Dragon Boating?
Courtesy of Hope Afloat

The Dragon Boat Festival has the longest history of the major holidays celebrated in China. Occurring at the beginning of summer when insects thrive, the festival was distinguished from other occasions in earlier days as a time for reminding family members to take care of their health.

More than 2,500 years ago, a group of superstitious people believed that dragonboat racing would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops. Celebrations took place on the summer solstice - the time of year typically associated with disease and death, and when man felt most helpless against the powers of nature. The race has come to symbolize both man's struggle against nature and his fight against dangerous enemies.

Myth and legend surround the history of dragon boat racing. The dragon is the most venerated of the Chinese zodiac deities and symbolizes control over the water. It is also said to rule the rivers and seas and dominate the clouds and rains. The very first races were mock dragon battles staged in order to awaken the hibernating Heavenly Dragon. Sacrifices were made to the dragon sorcerers. Humans, the cleverest and most powerful of all beings, were the original sacrifices. Even much later, when a paddler, or an entire team, fell into the water they would receive no assistance as it was believed to be wrong to interfere with the will of the gods. To observe the Chinese dragon boat races of today, you can only dream of their meager beginnings.

For many centuries, dragon boat racing was a violent clash known as the "To Fight and Cross Over" ceremony. Often, the race resembled a naval battle, with crew members of competing boats throwing stones and striking at one another with cane sticks. Onlookers played an active role in the race cheering and giving gifts of red and green silk to the boat from their region, but would shout angrily at opposing boats showering them with stones. It was thought unlucky if at least one drowning did not occur as a sacrifice to the gods. The multi colored boats, up to 90 feet in length and just wide enough for two people to sit in, were decorated with ferocious-looking dragon heads, scaly bodies and elaborate tails that rose out of the sea.

Over the years, a second story was integrated to give the festival a dual meaning - the touching saga of Qu Yuan, which embodies the story of love and service for one's country. Chinese history describes the fourth century B.C. as the Warring States period. It was a time of shifting alliances and treachery. In a kingdom called Chu, there lived a great patriot and poet by the name of Qu Yuan who was beloved by the people. He championed political reform and truth and was banished from the kingdom.

Wandering the countryside, Qu Yuan composed some of China's greatest poetry, expressing his fervent love for his country and his deep concern for her future. When the Chu kingdom was overtaken and ruined at the hands of a rival, either as an act of despair or an ultimate protest against the corrupt government, Qu Yuan tied himself to a large stone and threw himself into the Mei Lo river. This was on the fifth day of the fifth month in the year 278 B.C. Qu Yuan chose to commit suicide, rather than lose face and honor by serving a corrupt government.

Upon learning of Qu Yuan's death, the people raced to the river in their fishing boats in a futile attempt to save him. Desperately sailing up and down the river looking for Qu Yuan, they thrashed the water with their oars and paddles to scare off hungry fish that might eat his body. To commemorate Qu Yuan the patriot, fishermen and rural town folk threw cooked rice dumplings into the water. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that a huge river dragon was intercepting the rice meant for him. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages tied with five colors of string as an effort to ward off the dragon. This tradition is continued today, although now the dumplings are wrapped in leaves rather than silk.

Present day dragon boats are still similar to those raced over two thousand years ago. Each crew consists of 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steer person. Teams race along a straight course ranging from 250 to 1,000 meters. Top speed comes with a well timed stroke of the blade - a seasoned Dragon Boat team will have a stroke rate of 70–80 strokes per minute, and can travel over the water at 10-13 feet per second. Fortunately, the crowd no longer throws stone at rival boats, and it is not imperative that a boat capsizes, nor at least one person drowns as a sacrifice to the gods.

Dragonboating has evolved from its colorful beginning 2,500 years ago into an International sport with teams and races on all the continents. There is even an effort to promote dragonboating as an Olympic sport. Against this background, Hope Afloat proudly practices a time-honored tradition that has been celebrated for more than 2,500 years.

Why Breast Cancer Survivors?
Courtesy of Abreast in a Boat

To understand how breast cancer survivors and dragon boating has become inextricably paired, you have to look to a Canadian sports medicine physician named Dr. Don C. McKenzie.

In the fall of 1995, Dr. McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and an exercise physiologist, was conducting a research project at the Allan McGaving Sports Medicine Center, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. This study looked at the cardio-respiratory fitness levels of two groups of women - one group had been treated for breast cancer, the other group had no history of breast cancer. The breast cancer group had many anecdotal stories about the "don'ts" they had been told after treatment.

Most of this advice restricted activities involving the upper body. Though well intentioned, there was no published research that supported this information. A desire to return these individuals to an unrestricted, active lifestyle, as well as the lack of scientific proof to the contrary, was the impetus behind Dr. McKenzie's idea to form this first, all breast cancer survivor's dragon boat team. (Abreast in a Boat)

Dragon boating was chosen as the venue for several reasons; it is a strenuous, repetitive, upper body exercise; it provides an opportunity to work with a large group at one time; it provides a valuable training stimulus which results in a predictable improvement in fitness; it is a esthetically pleasing activity that is fun; Vancouver's Dragon Boat Festival is one of the World's largest and therefore, would visibly provide an excellent opportunity to reach a large number of people.

In February 1996, the first team was formed. The only criterion to join the team was a history of breast cancer. Age, athletic ability, paddling experience - non-of this mattered. Paddlers came from all parts of Vancouver area and from all walks of life. Ages ranged from 31 to 62! The women volunteered for this adventure not knowing what problems, if any would occur. They were, and are, a very courageous group. A slow, progressive weight training and aerobic exercise program was the starting point. This program was designed by Don to meet the needs of this special group. April was the start of the "on-the-water" training and the beginning of a very special floating support group.

As with the exercise program, the paddling training was done in a very slow, progressive manner with lots more rest time than paddling time! The training and coaching were excellent and were the key elements in avoiding the potential problems of lymphedema and the musculoskeletal problems associated with unaccustomed exercise. Key players surfaced to contribute enormous volumes of time and expertise: Diana Jespersen, Sue Buchan, Drew Mitchell, Urve Kuusk and Sherri Neisen provided the critical mass of volunteers to help make this work. As the weeks went by, the paddling increased and so did the camaraderie. Missing practice was something no one wanted to do.

The goal that first year was simply to complete the racecourse at the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival in June. After that first race, the sense of accomplishment was enormous. There were many hugs and tears all around not just from the team members, but also from their families, friends and lots of the spectators. It certainly was an emotional moment!

And where did they place in that first race.... as Don McKenzie said prior to the race, "It doesn't matter where they finish in this race, they are already winners."

From the simple idea of "let's put together a dragon boat team of women living with breast cancer", there has been tremendous growth. There are now several boats in Vancouver, numerous teams in other cities in Canada, as well as other countries. The Abreast In a Boat Society has been established and we encourage all people living with breast cancer to be inspired by these teams and know...."There is life after breast cancer".

What is the History of Dragonheart?

When Linda Dyer moved to Vermont from the Philadelphia area, she had a dream of bringing dragon boating to Vermont. Through the kindness of one person who ‘loaned’ the team a dragon boat for the summer and another who figured our how to transport a 41-foot vehicle from Boston to Burlington, Dragonheart got its auspicious start in June of 2004. Five members of the team, along with a few people passersby from the bike path, pushed the ‘borrowed’ dragon boat into Lake Champlain in July. Word spread quickly. With each practice, the team grew. By summer’s end, the Dragonheart boasted over 55 members – breast cancer survivors, our families, our friends, and paddling enthusiasts.

The team had to return the boat in October. As sad as it was to see the boat return to Boston, Dragonheart was more determined than ever to raise the funds needed to get our own dragon boat. One of our team members was instrumental in creating a marvelous video about Dragonheart. The team used every opportunity to tell our story. Our Burlington community responded BIG and supported our team generously. A HUGE thank you is due to the staff of Radiation Oncology at the Fletcher Allen Hospital. After we told them our story, these caretakers embraced our goals as if they were their own. The staff held a Silent Auction, Coin Drive, sold our team bracelets and holiday ornaments, and much more. In the end, these incredibly generous people raised so much money for Dragonheart that we dreamed a little bigger. We put the down payment on TWO dragon boats!!

The team worked hard to raise funds as well. We sold pink “Awaken the Dragon” bracelets to everyone we saw. We solicited funds from our families, friends, and community business owners. We held a Pink Premiere to hold our own Silent Auction in April that helped us reach our goal. In less than 10 months, Dragonheart raised the funds to purchase two dragon boats. What a year! We will forever be thankful to all of those that helped Dragonheart reach our goal.

What Do You Name a Dragon Boat?

The team members decided on the color ‘red’ for our dragon boats. It was a way to honor our beginnings since our borrowed boat was red. Also according to Chinese tradition, the color red represents LIFE, JOY, and GOOD LUCK!!! All of our Dragonheart members would agree that joining Dragonheart and paddling together has brought all of these good things into our lives. Our new boats were scheduled to arrive on May 18, 2005, alas the weather was not cooperating. Our days were cold and rainy. Worse yet, the water temperatures of Lake Champlain were measuring a chilly 40°F.! We postponed the arrival one week with the hope that conditions would improve . . . and boy, did they!!! Our boats made their journey from Toronto to Burlington on May 25th. What a difference a week makes. The new delivery day was sunny, blue, and mild. Better yet, the water had warmed over 20°!. With the help of tow truck and the team, we joyously unloaded our new boats and placed them into the lake. Our maiden voyage was joyous. Lake Champlain has it own tradition. Word has it that a Loch Ness-type monster named Champ lives there. Now, there are two more powerful forces making their home in Lake Champlain. They are Lady and the Champ, our beautiful red Dragonheart dragon boats. You can see them out of the waterfront at the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, our summer hosts for the team.

What is an Eye Dotting Ceremony?

Before you begin dragon boating each season, it is customary to ‘dot the eyes” of the dragons. A dragon boat is ‘dressed’ during races and ceremonies with a beautiful dragon head and tail. It is tradition to ‘awaken the dragon’ at the beginning of each paddling season to awaken her spirit. Each eye of the dragon is ‘dotted’ or painted in with red paint so that the dragon can see. Next a stroke of paint is added to the tongue so that the dragon can breathe. The ceremony is one more way to reinforce our Dragonheart mission of helping women with breast cancer take back control of their lives. Paddling together is empowering. Our breast cancer survivor team is supported by our partners, children, and friends who have joined us on the lake. All of us are committed to awakening the dragon within. We feel the power, strength, courage, and spirit of paddling together in our dragon boats. At the end of the paddling season, the process is reversed and the dragon is put to sleep for the winter.

Who are the Dragonheart Drummers?

Our team has taken our camaraderie one step further. On top of paddling together in the boat, we also drum together. Under the guidance of Stuart Paton of the Burlington Taiko Group, we have created the Dragonheart Drummers. Each week we get together and learn the art of traditional Japanese drumming. We call ourselves the Dragonheart Drummers. We showcased our drumming talent after only 6 weeks of practice at Dragonheart’s Pink Premiere in April of 2005. We reprised our number at dragon boat camp in Florida a few weeks later. Stuart helped the Dragonheart Drummers create an original composition called “Awaken the Dragon.’ It was played on the docks of the Lake Champlain Sailing Community Center for Dragonheart’s First Annual Eye Dotting Celebration in June 2005. It was the perfect way to awaken the dragons within each and every one of the Dragonheart members and spectators. The Dragonheart Drummers will serve as the opening act for the First Annual Newport, VT Dragon Boat Festival in September 2005 as well.

Link to the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center

Link to the Burlington Taiko Group

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