More than 2000 years ago in the Chinese Kingdom of Chu, there lived a poet-statesman called Qu Yuan. He was an honest man who was dearly loved by the people. The government of the kingdom of Chu was however, a corrupt one, and many of the courtiers resented Qu Yuan’s talent, his sense of righteousness and his popularity. They finally convinced the Emperor that it was, in fact Qu Yuan who was a corrupt influence and he was banished from the kingdom.
For many years after, Qu Wan wandered the countryside composing poems about his love for the people until, one day, perhaps unable to bear his sorrow any longer, or maybe as a final protest against the corrupt government of the time, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River.
Local fishermen who witnessed this desperate act dashed to their boats and attempted to rescue Qu Yuan. They were unsuccessful but in an attempt to prevent the hungry fish from eating the poet’s body, they beat the water furiously with their paddles. As a sacrifice to his spirit, the fishermen then threw rice dumplings, wrapped in silk, into the river.
The tragic death of Qu Yuan is commemorated each year on the fifth day of the fifth moon when the fishermen’s frantic attempt to save the poet is re-enacted in the form of dragon boat races. Also at this time of the year, in keeping with the legend, rice cakes are made, but instead of being thrown into the water, are enjoyed by everyone.
It is not clear how the actual dragon-head and prow came into being - it is unlikely that the original boats used to try to save Qu Yuan were similarly decorated - it is thought that, during the evolution of the races over the years, the fierce-looking dragon-heads were added to ward off evil water spirits.
So, what is Dragon Boat Racing all about then? Well, there are three main aspects - the boats, the teams and the races. But firstly, a word on the structure here in the UK. The Official Governing Body for all Dragon Boat Racing in the UK is the British Dragon Boat Association (BDA). They run a League consisting of three Divisions - Charity/Scratch, Standard and Premier. If you finish high enough in your Division, you win promotion to the next highest Division.
Other Governing Bodies are the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) and the European Dragon Boat Federation (EDBF). In Asia Dragon Boat Racing is a huge sport. In China, where Dragon Boat Racing is a professional sport, boats can take up to 40 paddlers. This is not the case in Europe though.
There are three lengths of boat: the long boat, holding up to 40 paddlers, is very rare outside Southeast Asia and looks fairly difficult to manoeuvre; the mini boat holding up to 10 people; and the usual boat length of 40 feet, holding up to 20 paddlers. There are several build types, the most common types being wood and fibreglass. Fibreglass boats are light and quick, whereas wood is the most common to race and train in.
There are many teams around the UK with new ones springing up all the time. Many of these are sponsored by companies, partly because of travel costs, but mainly because it is damn good advertising. The grassroots of Dragon Boating is sourced from teams formed to take part in one-off events, so look at our calendar to find an event near you. A lot of teams have their own websites, so see our Links page for those. Thames is competing in both the Premier Division and the Standard Division alongside 11 other teams in each Division. We look forward to and some tough races ahead. We always welcome new paddlers, so please get in touch with us for more information
There’s only one type of race in this sport - tough! It can occur over several distances. Short races, held at almost every League event are 200 metres. The Standard Race is 500m. Occasionally, to round off a League event, they will hold a 1km race. This is to make sure that those teams who come a close 2nd or 3rd in a Standard or Short race can have a chance to come a distant last in this one…There are also longer races, such as Eton’s 6km race, held in April, and London’s 22-mile Great River Race between Richmond and Greenwich, held in September.