Dragon Boat Hong Kong
Kingston Royals in action
Dragon Boat Hong Kong
Dragon Boat Hong Kong
On the river (no messing about) - Teddington, England
"I beg your pardon," said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. "You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. So - this - is - a - River!" "The River," corrected the Rat.
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
June is the month for the most prestigious Dragon Boat Festivals in the Far East when the sound of twenty paddles stabbing the water in meticulous time to the thump of the drum will resonate through the waterways of Hong Kong and Penang. Dragon Boating is a swirl of a spectacle to watch but what’s it like to compete at this achingly physically demanding sprint sport? I spent a Spring Saturday morning training on the Thames with the Kingston Royals to find out.
If I was looking for a wimp’s introduction, it was the wrong club to pick. They’re one of the best in the UK with their A team The Royals competing in the Premier League and their B Team The Pretenders paddling for promotion this year. However with all of the usual difficulties of an amateur sport (and twenty two seats to fill in each boat come competition time) the club are always looking for new members and run special beginner paddles where you can try out alongside more experienced racers.
Within minutes of arriving at Dragon Boat School I was sat on a boat made of dining room chairs learning the technique from Pretenders Captain Andy. “It’s not about strength; it’s about timing”. It’s simple physics – if you have a klutz (i.e. me) paddling out of synch or in the wrong direction then it’s counteracting everybody else. The second rule is that your start position should be so far forward that you are showing your shoulder blade to the river bank in order to make the stroke meaningful. If you are not flaunting that shoulder blade (and even though people will be terribly nice about it whilst you are a beginner) you are basically slacking. The final thing to learn is that, as the paddle enters the water, the arm should be straight to prevent elbow and shoulder strain. Your torso should be doing the work (fitness fiends: this is a fantastic core strength and upper body work out).
After a warm up stretch and quick team huddle we were assigned our seats on the REAL LIFE Dragon Boats on the REAL LIFE river for a 45 minute interval training session. I was very excited.
Sat on the left behind Pedro, another beginner, I assumed the start position and on the shout of the lady helm we set off. Pedro and I instantly starting clashing paddles – Pedro was trying hard and I was paddling in the style of a Springer Spaniel chasing its tail.
Eventually as sprint sessions passed and Teddington merged into the shop fronts of Kingston, with the helm alternating between motivation “heads up Kingston” and being a human metronome, I managed to find the rhythm of Pedro and the rest of the boat. Once you achieve this synchronicity it’s a wonderful feeling – twenty people unified in pushing a boat forward (for extra oomph the helm will sometimes ask for a “kick” to jump the boat forward). Suzanne Seyghal , who has just made the Great Britain women’s team and is training hard for her first international race in Tampa, understands this sense of achievement and explained that one of the things she loves about the sport is how it’s so welcoming to beginners “it’s about skill not strength and you can take a time trial to join the race teams as soon as you feel ready to”.
Creaking back into Teddington, my arms felt like bags of cement. This was because I hadn’t stuck to the straight arm advice – more experienced Dragon Boaters were back out again after a very English post training boost of tea and cake. There’s definitely a river way of life that comes with immersion in a sport where you are on the Thames throughout its seasons and in the words of one of the greatest River Spokespeople of all time, Ratty from Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Even if the messing about is very, very serious.
Kingston Royals pictures courtesy of John Griffiths and Hong Kong photos courtesy of www.discoverhongkong.com