What Is A Dragon Boat Race?-Detailed Answer&Tips

Dragon boat racing is a fun-filled popular water sports activity. If you’re thinking of taking up the sport or are just curious about dragon boats, read this informative article to get a better insight.

I had never heard of dragon boats up until they made their Olympic Games debut in 2021. The beautiful boats definitely piqued my interest so when I got the chance to go dragon boating while on holiday in Budapest, Hungary, I was excited. It turned out to be so much fun and I can even say it’s my favorite water sport. I have done it a few times after and it’s an activity I’d advise anyone to add to their bucket list.


What Are Chinese Dragon Boats?

A Chinese Dragon Boat is a long narrow human-powered watercraft that is made of wood and originated from the Pearl River Delta region of China’s Guangdong Province. It is designed to resemble a Chinese dragon and thus its name. Different regions of China have different designs and may even use different types of wood but typically the boats are between 20-35 meters in length and are made of teak. Traditionally, about 30-60 people were needed to paddle one boat. The boats are today used in competitive watersport races.

What Does the Dragon Boat Symbolize?

The Dragon Boat is rich in Chinese culture and tradition as it is over 2000 years old. The boats are designed to resemble Chinese Dragons. Each boat has a dragon’s head, tail and scales.

So, what exactly is a Chinese Dragon?

chinese dragon boat
chinese dragon boat

The Chinese Dragon is believed to have the head of a camel, 117 fish scales of the carp, eyes of a rabbit, stomach of a clam, paws of a tiger, and claws of an eagle. The dragon is a mythical creature made up of different animals. It symbolizes courage, boldness, energy, and heroism. It represents perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles. The Chinese are said to be the ‘sons of dragons’ and so the creature is revered in a religious sense.

The Chinese Dragon and Dragon Boat are so symbolic in Chinese culture that there is a Dragon Boat Festival full of customs activities including dragon boat races and making sticky-rice treats (Zongzi). It is held every fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar Calendar. The festival is a ‘cleanliness day’ used to repel disease and poisonous creatures. It also memorializes the death of Chinese patriot, Qu Yuan. In December 2007, the Dragon Boat Festival was made a national holiday by the central Chinese government.

The Dragon Boat thus commemorates the death of ancient poet Qu Yuan and pays respects to the symbolic mythical Dragon.

What is Dragon Boat Racing?

chinese dragon boat race
chinese dragon boat race

Dragon Boat Racing is traditional Chinese paddle-driven watercraft activity that originated over 2000 years. It has since been commercialized and spread around the world. It was first made a modern sport in 1976, in Hong Kong. Traditionally, 30-60 people would paddle one boat. In modern dragon boat racing, there are 18-20 paddlers (8-10 for smaller boats) and they form a team. There is a drummer at the head of the boat who is regarded as the boat’s heartbeat. He sets the Cadence. The team must paddle in harmony with the drummer’s beat and should remain synchronized. There is also a cox or steersperson to guide the team. Today, commercial dragon boats are made of fiberglass and carbon fiber boats but the decorative Chinese dragon features are still present.

Dragon boat racing is also known as regattas and when on an international level is governed by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF).

Dragon Boat History and Background

What is the Origin of Dragon Boat Racing?

Qu Yuan
Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan (343-278 BC) was the earliest famous Chinese poet who was a Chu State official in the Warring States Period. When Chu State failed, Yuan drowned himself in the Mi Luo River prompting the locals to search for his body using boats. Dragon boat racing represents the attempts to rescue and save Yuan who is an honored individual in Chinese history.

When did Dragon Boat Racing Start?

Dragon Boat Racing started over 2000 years ago. The exact year or date of origin is unknown. The first races were held to commemorate the great Qu Yuan and his death. Since then, it has been used in Chinese culture to represent patriotism and resilience.

Where Did Dragon Boat Racing Originate?

It is believed that dragon boat racing originated from the Pearl River Delta region of China’s Guangdong Province. Since then, it spread all over China and ultimately, around the world.

How Long is a Dragon Boat Race?

A dragon boat race may not be as easy as it looks. These races are usually either 500m, 250m, or 200m sprints. Each race is approximately 2.5 minutes with heats running for around 15 minutes to allow teams to load and offload boats. At times, there may be longer races i.e., 1000m, 2000m, 12km, 25km, and even 55km. Talk about a workout!

Dragon Boat Racing Equipment

Of course, to participate in this sports activity, you need to be suited up appropriately and have all the necessary gear. Let’s have a closer look at what you’ll need to get started.

Shoes for Dragon Boat Racing

For footwear, ensure that they have a great grip. Supportive shoes with good tread to grip on wet surfaces are essential. You wouldn’t want to slip when getting in and out of the boats. Consider water shoes or running shoes/sneakers. Avoid flip-flops and sandals! Also, remember this is a watersport so preferably only wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.

What is Dragon Boat Paddling?

ancient chinese dragon boats
ancient chinese dragon boats

In dragon boat racing, team players use paddles to paddle the boat to the finish line. The paddles are often made of wood or carbon material and are used to move in the water while propelling the boat. Each team player uses one hand to grip the top of the paddle (known as a handle) and the other holds closer to the bottom near the paddle blade (the flat end of a paddle). Using a front-to-back motion, the players draw their paddles through the water to steer the boat forward. This is known as paddling. The strokes of the players must be in sync.

What to Wear for Dragon Boat Racing?

The following are some guidelines you can keep in mind when considering what to wear when going dragon boat racing:

  • Wear loose-fitting, water-resistant clothing (e.g. team jerseys, gym wear, bathing suits). The clothing should be able to dry fast and wick moisture away. Avoid cotton and jean materials.
  • Wear water-resistant shoes or even go barefoot on the boat. Do not wear flip flops
  • Do not wear jewelry or watches. They can cause injury or can be lost/damaged
  • Hats, sunglasses, and water gloves are optional but recommended
  • If it is cold, layer your clothes
  • Wear rain gear that can fit under a life jacket if it is raining

How Popular is Dragon Boat Racing?

It is quite popular. Dragon boat racing so popular that it is the fastest growing water sport. Over 2,000,000 people globally participate annually in the Dragon Boat Festival with participants from ages 12 to 85. The sport is more popular with men 60% of players are male while 40% of players are female. It is now a popular sport globally even having space at the Olympic Games.

How to Play Dragon Boat Racing

Just like with any game or sport, there must be rules for the players to follow. Some rules may vary, however depending on the occasion and setting. Know more about them below.

Dragon Boat Racing Rules

  1. There must be a drummer and a steersperson on each team
  2. The minimum for any team is 8 players and the maximum is 20 (depending on the size of the boat)
  3. The minimum age of a participant is 12 years old
  4. All team players must wear a PFD (Personal Floatation Device) such as a life jacket.  
  5. All teams are to race three times – two heats and a final
  6. Participants are to treat officials, organizers, volunteers, spectators, and their competitors with respect and etiquette
  7. All crew is to remain in their designated lanes for the duration of the race.

Dragon Boat Racing Health Benefits

With almost all sports, you’re likely to get some health benefits and dragon boat racing is no different. People of varying physical fitness can compete and ultimately, the more one plays, the fitter you become. Dragon boat paddling requires your entire body muscles. You use your legs as anchors and your back, arm, and shoulder muscles to paddle in the water. It’s great for strengthening your core and abs plus your shoulders, arms and back will get nicely toned. It’s a full-body workout!

In addition, dragon boat racing is great for your cardiovascular health as your blood will be pumping and you’ll break a sweat. The sport also builds endurance and stamina while promoting good mental health.


In conclusion, it’s no shock that people are widely attracted to the energy and color of dragon boat racing. Its international recognition is well deserved. Definitely try it out at least once!

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