Dragon boat racing is my new favorite activity. It is made of excitement, intensity, focus, camaraderie, endurance, and skill and involves playing outside with your friends, gliding across the water, and challenging yourself in a unique way. No wonder it’s the 8th fastest growing sport in the world.
This past weekend, me and 20 of my buddies joined together to row an authentic 46-foot dragon boat in the Mississippi River. It sounds bizarre because it absolutely is. We collectively had zero experience with the sport, no knowledge of the proper technique, or really any idea of what we were getting ourselves into, but boy are we glad we took that leap.
Friday evening we met on Mud Island for our first and only practice before the next day’s race. We learned how to strategically arrange people in the boat for maximum efficiency, perform the proper paddle stroke (which turns out to be nothing like canoeing or kayaking), count out our race start, and row in synchronized unity. Beyond those very basic skills, our two-hour practice session taught us that dragon boat racing is a lot more strenuous and involved than you might originally think.
The next morning, we gathered under our tent, went over some last-minute details, then made our way over to the marshalling area. We took our official group picture, practiced our counts, and then it was time to don our life jackets and load into the boat. In the seconds leading up to our race start, I was consumed with a giddy rush of excitement and nervousness. I poised my paddle an inch above the water, listened intently for the command, and immediately dug in at the sound of the horn. We instantly found our rhythm, chanting in sync, paddles flying. Throughout the duration of our 200 meter rush, I had no other thoughts than to row deliberately and at the exact same time as the paddler in front of me, to my left (I was sitting starboard), and in the front row and opposite me. No time to dwell on the increasing fatigue; just listen to the drum cadence, reach the paddle as far forward as physically possible, stab the water, pull with every morsel of strength you have, recover, and repeat. For precisely 1:09.969, we rowed our faces off until our coach yelled, “LET IT RUN!!”, the welcome command that means we have crossed the final buoy.
Although our run only lasted a little over a minute, it left us winded, sore, and….ecstatic. We won our first heat! Our team was beyond thrilled, and the excitement in our boat was tangible.
We had an hour break between heats, and we spent our time snacking, excitedly rehashing the race we had just finished, and devising a new and improved strategy for round two. A while later, we found ourselves on the dock gripping our paddles and mentally preparing for another round of intense rowing. Again, the race started with a blast of the horn, and we immediately hunkered down to work. I’ve decided that dragon boat racing is akin to sprinting. You hardly have time to catch your breath, you just set your mind to 200 meters of pain, you do it, and you don’t think about it. We shaved roughly 2.5 seconds off our previous time, clocking in at 1:07.267, which was enough to win our second heat but not enough to push us into the final race.
No big deal. By this time, we were so smitten with dragon boating, we were just happy to have been a part of the event. It also didn’t hurt that we were awarded a gold trophy for winning our division.
I cannot fully describe how much fun we had with this. I highly, highly recommend you get in on the action next year. We were so taken with the sport, we discussed the farfetched option of purchasing our own dragon boat and becoming a traveling racing team. More realistically, however, almost every member of our team enthusiastically committed to participating next year.
Cannot say it enough: dragon boat racing is the coolest.