Your first dragon-boat race is always special. Mine was back in 2001, one special day.
It was September at the National dragon-boat Championships at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham. I paddle for the Amathus dragon-boat Club from Liverpool. We had all made our own way to Nottingham for the weekend of dragon-boat racing that constitutes the National Finals.
Essentially the dragon-boat racing at Holme Pierrepont consists of a series of knock out races over 200m and 500m. There are races for women, races for men, races for beginners, races for seniors, races for juniors and races for mixed teams. Every team that competes earns points for their club. The points are added up at the end of the weekend to determine the best overall dragon-boat club.
dragon-boats come in two sizes, 30 feet and 40 feet. All the races at the Nationals are in the full size, 40 foot boats. A full crew consists of 20 paddlers and a helm, who stands on the back of the dragon-boat with a steering oar. A drummer sits at the front facing the crew beating the rhythm, as dictated by the helm. The crew sit in pairs on narrow benches facing forwards. Each crew member has a single bladed paddle, which may be made of wood or glass fiber/carbon fiber reinforced polymers.
I had just bought my first paddle and was very proud of it, a wooden one that I had tried out in training sessions and found comfortable. The main differences between paddles are in the degree of rigidity and handle shape. Wooden paddles are slightly more flexible than the glass fiber or carbon fiber one. Carbon fiber paddles are the lightest dragon-boat paddles currently available.
Most dragon-boat racing clubs have three or four teams. My club, Amathus were fielding six teams over the weekend, at various levels. I had not been paddling for long at this stage, so I was in the Bees, the B team, made up of all ages, and a mixture of men and women.
Amathus had hired a room at the club house to house the hundred or so paddlers who had turned out for the club. Other dragon-boat clubs had to make do with tents, the backs of trucks and garden wind screens. Spending two days in a crowded tent, while wet and sweaty, with the wind howling is not a lot of fun.
One person was in charge of each team, to make sure that the team were always where they were supposed to be. This was not an easy job with such a crowded racing schedule for six teams, with many paddlers paddling for two or three different club teams. Some of the younger paddlers were in the Amathus Ladies, Juniors and Bees for example
dragon-boats in races are fully dressed, with detailed, brightly painted head and tail pieces. The crews are all dressed in similar stretchy tops and shorts, each team in their own colors.
Most of the race preparations had been done over the past months at training sessions in the Albert Dock in Liverpool, where the Amathus dragon-boat Club is based. The preparations for any dragon-boat race fall into psychological and physical, the same as for any athletic event.
Psychological preparations for racing include believing we were the best, learning to trust each other, learning not to respond to taunts from other teams and supporting each other, coming together as a TEAM.
Physical preparations include learning the basics of an efficient stroke, learning to paddle the dragon-boat in time, learning to cope with the pain of lactic acid build up that happens in any sprint event, learning how to breathe while paddling and building up general fitness levels.
Our team was called together and, to shouts of encouragement from the rest of the club, we trooped outside to the lawn, where we went through an extensive series of stretching and warm-up exercises. The importance of these to avoid muscle strains had been stressed to everyone.
Straight from the warm up we went down to where our boat was tied up and climbed aboard into our assigned positions. Where we sat in the dragon-boat was important because the boat had to be balanced fore and aft as well as from side to side.
We paddled the 250 metres to the start in a series of twenty strokes paddling followed by 30 seconds rest, just stretching out and feeling our way into paddling as a team.
The helm turned the dragon-boat boat around and we backed up to the starting position. There were five other teams in our heat. During this pre-race period everyone had been trained to remain focused on themselves and on our team. Nobody even looked at the dragon-boat teams on either side, lest our own concentration should suffer. This concentration is an essential part of preparing yourself for any race and we wanted to WIN.
Are You Ready, Attention, GO are the starting commands in any dragon-boat race.
Are You Ready -Came the call from the starter…Deep breathing from everyone, oxygenating their blood to the fullest extent. Paddles raised ready to go in the water.
Attention- Paddles in the water, pushed as far forward as possible, one deep breath.
GO - The paddles pull back in unison. Pull the boat past the paddle. Pull the paddle out, lean forward and plant the paddles in the water again, Pull, Out, Plant. The first ten strokes are the most important in any dragon-boat race. They are very fast, usually about 90 strokes a minute, though some teams manage a 150 per minute stroke rate for these first ten strokes.
After ten strokes goes the shout from the drummer… UP…meaning change gear, look up, refocus, stay in time. After the second ten strokes the drummer shouts again…UP… meaning look up, check timing, concentrate, change up another gear.
After 20 strokes the dragon-boat is moving at nearly its full speed, and the stroke changes. Eyes are focused in the boat. Nobody even glances sideways, though we are aware of another dragon-boat running level with us through our peripheral vision.
At this point everyone is anaerobic and beginning to hurt. As our hearts and lungs speed up and start to deliver the oxygen our muscles need the pain recedes. We paddle for all we are worth for another minute, still that other boat is alongside, though only the drummer and helm can see the exact situation.
As we approach the finish line the drummer shouts, THREE, TWO, ONE, UP! Up goes the stroke rate for a sprint finish.
They are still there, THREE, TWO, ONE, UP. Every paddler gives 200% effort now, knowing that it is only for 15 seconds and we can take the pain for that short time.
And Easy comes the drummers call. We stop paddling and see that we are half a dragon-boat length ahead of our nearest team.
YES – We won.
Pain forgotten in the adrenaline rush that comes with victory. Every paddler is as high as a kite as we paddle
back to the dock where we exit the boat and go to do our warm down exercises.
Who needs drugs when you can get high just like this?