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What is a Dragon Boat?

By Josie Myers
Updated May 23, 2024
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A dragon boat is a canoe-like boat that is used for racing. They are usually about 40 feet (12 meters) long, and hold between 10-20 rowers, known as paddlers. Races take place during the yearly Dragon Boat Festival, a holiday that originated in ancient China.

The Dragon Boat Festival usually coincides with the Double Fifth Festival, which is held on the fifth day of the fifth moon. In the United States, the festival usually takes place around June. According to legend, the Double Fifth was the very unlucky day of the year, when the river dragons would demand offerings in order to deliver optimal rainfall for the crops.

The boats used during the festival are usually decorated with the head and tail of a dragon to honor the ancient beliefs. Before the race, it is tradition to have a Taoist monk dot red in the eyes of the dragon. This gesture symbolized the dragon coming to life during the race. These decorations are removed immediately following the festivities.

In China, most dragon boats are hand made, and can vary in their composition and style. There are two basic kinds of boats that are used in North American racing: Hong Kong and Taiwan style. The Hong Kong style boat, the more popular of the two, is slim and sleek and typically sits about 20 people very close to the surface of the water. A Taiwan style dragon boat tends to be heavier and wider. The main difference between the two styles is that a Taiwan style boat requires a space for a flag puller. In Taiwanese style racing, a flag must be pulled to win the race, while in Hong Kong style the winner is determined by which dragon's nose crosses the line first.

A dragon boat is typically manned by a leader, known as the drummer, and 10-20 paddlers, although some crews can be as large as 50. The drummer sets the pace for the crew, and gives the signal when to row using a drum or a gong. The paddlers sit facing forward, and use a large paddle as opposed to a traditional canoe oar. The most skilled teams in the world can row at up to 100 strokes per minute.

The race itself is usually about 500 meters (1,640 feet) in length, but some can be longer or shorter. Races take place all around the world on the day of the festival. Since the 1970s, dragon boats have been gaining in popularity in the Western world. Races are held not only in many Asian countries, but in Canada, The United States, and Europe as well.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jun 21, 2014

I was on a dragon boat team a couple of years ago and my arms and shoulders were so sore the next day, I could hardly move! I do exercise, but this was completely different. Won't do that again!

Rowing in dragon boat races is for people 20 years younger than I am.

I don't think my company would sponsor a team. They wouldn't want to spend the money. But there are plenty of other teams for people who want to enjoy the sport. I'm just not one of them. My husband had to drive me home from the event because I was so worn out.

By Pippinwhite — On Jun 20, 2014

My company sponsors a dragon boat team for the city's dragon boat festival. They tried to get me to be on the team, but I have absolutely *no* talent for rowing or drumming! Our team won, though, so it's not like they really missed me or anything.

The dragon's head sat in a place of honor in the lobby for like a week. The boss looked good doing it, so he was happy. He's always happy when something happens that makes him look good, even if 11 other people helped.

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