Dragonboating is a team sport that welcomes people from all age groups and all walks of life (the Shanghai Water Sports Center does not, however, allow children on the boats for safety reasons). While many of our team members are committed to dragonboating as a key part of their regular fitness routine, most of us also relish the chance to get away from the hubbub of the city, and spend some quality time with friends in the countryside.

The central principles of dragonboating are timing, technique and power. Here’s our crash course on basic paddling technique:

The most important skill to master in dragon boating is, of course, the stroke. The paddling technique is simple enough that a beginner can begin an approximation of the technique in his or her first few practices, but to move the boat with the power required in competitive racing requires a constant effort to refine the various elements of the stroke. Most beginners will find dragon boat paddling awkward, because it places you in an unnatural position: paddling on only one side of the body, pulling the water rather than pushing it (as in other paddle sports such as kayaking), and keeping the stroke all up in front of you. But with time, the body will become used to this positioning and it is then that true progress towards becoming a competitive dragon boat paddler will be made.

There are 4 elements to the dragon boat stroke: Reach/extension, catch, pull, and exit. We’ll examine each element separately.

1) Reach. Reach refers to the action of the paddler leading up to and beginning an individual stroke, though not the placing of the paddle into the water itself (see element number 2, “catch”). The paddler wants to place the paddle as far ahead of him or herself as possible, ideally stretching the paddle up past the bench immediately in front of the paddler. By placing the paddle as far ahead as possible, the paddler is maximizing the amount of time the paddle will be pulling through the water, and therefore maximizing the amount of force he or she is putting into making the boat move.

If the paddlers on a team do not reach far enough forward on their strokes, they will simply not be able to put enough power into each stroke to be competitive, and will be wasting most of the energy that they’re exerting.

2) Catch. The second component of the dragon boat stroke refers to how the paddle is placed down into the water, how the paddle “catches” the water. Ideally, the paddle should not simply be dropped into the water, but some force should be exerted downwards on the paddle, to make it “dig” into the water. The blade should be fully buried to the end of the blade once catch is completed, in order to pull the maximum amount of water.

On the Tragically Quick, we emphasize catch by letting the paddle “hang” before thrusting the paddle down into the water. “Hang” refers to the paddler noticeably holding the paddle up in the air for a few moments at the end of the reach phase, before driving the paddle down into the water.

3) Pull. The next phase of the stroke refers to the movement of the paddle through the water, once it has been planted by the “catch” phase. With the paddle as far forward as the paddler can place it, the paddler pulls the paddle back through the water.

The stroke should be asstraight as possible, because any other movement of the paddle (for instance, slightly perpendicular) would contribute nothing to the forward movement of the boat, and would, in fact, weaken the general forward movement of the boat by pulling the boat slightly in another direction.

4) Exit. This refers, obviously, to the action of taking the paddle out of the water at the end of the stroke. The ideal dragon boat stroke should be quite short, and as much as possible in front of, rather than behind the body. The stroke should end between the knee and mid-thigh of the paddler, and no further back. Beginning dragon boaters (and alot of dragon boaters who’ve been doing it for years) have a problem with too long of a stroke. They may think they’re getting more power into the stroke by continuing it beyond their knee-mid thigh, but technically, since the stroke is powered by rotation of the trunk of the body forward rather than backward, pulling the paddle through behind your body results in a wasted expenditure of energy.

Pulling back too far also would necessarily result, timewise, in the paddlers being able to get less strokes in in a race than with a proper stroke, since they’re wasting all that extra motion. The number of strokes a team is able to get in during a race can make the difference (along with other factors such as rotation and total technique), for example if boats are evenly matched and sprinting towards the finish line.

And that’s the basics of the dragon boat stroke! Of course, there are many other factors the dragon boat paddler has to master. Things like rotation and timing. Also, at various phases of a race, different elements of the stroke technique will be emphasized for different effects. But for the beginning dragon boat paddler, knowing just the four elements of proper stroke technique is the most important thing to understand. In the future, I’ll add more on the other factors.

You can also read more about paddling at:

Kirby’s Tips on Dragon Boat Paddling Technique (Canadian Dragons Singapore)