One of the things that makes our sport so popular is that races come in virtually all shapes and forms. You can paddle small boats with 10 paddlers, “standard” ones with 20, races can be short 200 meter sprints all the way to 2000 meter (or even longer) tests of fortitude. There are categories for everyone, from those who are paddling with their work friends, to survivors celebrating life, to weekend warriors and even professional athletes. You can always find your tribe in our tribe.
Yet, one type of race is near and dear to our hearts here at dragonboating.com: fisherman invitational races in Hong Kong. To witness or participate in one of these races is to find oneself immersed in the traditions of the sport, to experience not just a race, but also a cultural festival where communities come together to celebrate each other, where rituals come alive and one really feels a sense of pride of place that can’t be replicated anywhere else. They are not the only traditional form of racing around, but we cannot escape being a little biased in favour of our neighbours and friends.
What makes them so special?
From the moment you arrive at the venue, you realise that there is something different about the race that is about to take place. Fishing trawlers sporting brightly coloured flags line the course, smaller craft ply the waters ferrying competitors and supporters from the pier. To the side of the larger vessels that will host the teams for the day, men put finishing touches on the dragon boats, burning joss sticks (a type of incense) and decorating the dragon heads. As the boats get ready, teams paddle out for a spin as one of their members throws up symbolic offerings of paper money in great skyward bursts.
The dragon boats by themselves make the experience worth it. Long, sleek, and made of carefully polished wood, these are the dragon boating equivalent of a classic sports car, the Ferraris of dragon boat racing.
While definitely heavier than the typical fiberglass boats most of us paddle, their longer water line and more generous distance between paddlers makes them blazingly fast and it is not uncommon for them to reach speeds above 22 Km/h. Each team owns the boat it races and you can tell by the care with which the head is decorated that each dragon boat embodies the sense of pride and place of its community. Stepping into one of these boats feels as if the wood itself has soaked up the history of the sport.
The atmosphere of a fisherman’s invitational race is like that of no other. To witness or participate in one of these races is to find oneself immersed in the traditions of the sport, to experience a cultural festival where communities come together to celebrate each other and where rituals come alive. These are some of the elders of the sport, the people who kept it alive and vibrant. It is hard not to feel honored to be invited to partake in the experience for a day.
Words don’t really do these races justice, but luckily we have our friends at Drone and Phone to prove it.
And then they unleash the Furies on you…
There is really no other way to describe the races themselves. These are furious affairs even for a sport that is already known for the power and intensity of its races. Seen from the deck of one of the host team trawlers the race is a moving wall of sound coming your way. The noise of the drums and of the paddlers get combined with the screams from the audience cheering for friends and family, and it does sound like a pack of dragons bearing down towards the finish line. As the dragons pass by, it is nearly impossible to see who is ahead, as these are such fiercely competitive races that they are usually still up for grabs fifty meters from the finish.
From the seat of the dragons themselves, the experience is almost indescribable. From the very first stroke, you realize that this is going to be painful. The best teams jump ahead as if they were sitting on a coiled spring. The rating is blistering, the burn starts before you even have a chance to think and you quickly realize that the next minute or so will be agonizing. Halfway through, your legs are screaming for mercy, abs are on fire, and you cannot decide whether to pray for your lats not to give up or for your lungs not to explode. If you miss a transition or if the boat next to you is simply much faster, the first few rows of your boat will fight to climb up a wall of water as the one that just got a jump on you throws a massive wake and you are no longer in a flat water race.
It is almost over before you start. You have no idea where you placed (but know you did not win – these are the big boys of dragon boating). Still gasping for breath and with liquid fire scorching your muscles, all you can think of is: “Whoa! I want to do this again!”