What’s a Dragon Boat?

Dragon boats are long, slim, open boats used in China and made in traditional designs of various sizes and lengths.  The crew use single bladed paddles to drive the boat forward, a method of propulsion common to many other paddle water craft around the world. However, with competitive roots over 2000 years old, Dragon Boat Racing can rightly claim to be the ‘mother’ of all paddle sports.  Viewed from above the water line, a Dragon Boat resembles an over-sized canoe, but this can be misleading, as both construction and resulting performance are distinctly different.

Dragon Boats have been used for spiritual and competitive purposes for over 2,000 years in China, with the smallest boat, called a “Baby Dragon” having a crew of eight paddlers, while some boats are designed for more than 100 paddlers.  The modern design of the Hong Kong style racing boat has a crew of 22, consisting of 20 Paddlers, one Drummer and a Helm (the steerer).  The CAPITAL CITY DRAGON BOAT RACE will use 40’ Taiwan style Dragon Boats, which will require 18 Paddlers, one Drummer, the Helm and the Flag Catcher.

Why did Dragon Boat Racing Start?

Over 2,000 years ago, Qu (pronounced ‘Chu’) Yuan (340-278 BC) – poet, warrior and loyal aide to the emperor – fell victim to plots and deception, and found himself out of Chu Yuan favor at court.  When the old emperor died, Qu Yuan was unjustly banished and wandered the countryside, composing poems he hoped would be heard and heeded by the new emperor.  His inconsolable desolation grew, until one day he threw himself into the Mi Lo River.  His devoted followers, learning of his death, rushed to search for his body.  Fearing the fish might devour the body, they beat their paddles on the water, banging drums and gongs to frighten the fish, and threw rice dumplings wrapped with bamboo leaves (called tzung-tze) into the river.

Each year, crews of paddlers re-enact that frantic rush to save Qu Yuan, by powering long narrow boats with the ferocious heads of dragons mounted on the prow through the water, to the frenzied, rhythmic beating of drums.  It is not known how the dragon boat prow came in being, but it is thought that over the years, they were added to ward off evil water spirits.

When did Dragon Boat Racing come to North America?

IDBF ChampionshipModern day Dragon Boat Racing began in 1976 when the Hong Kong Tourist Board staged an International Dragon Boat Festival to promote the culture of Hong Kong. North America’s first Dragon Boat Races were held in Toronto in the 1970’s, using simulated dragon boats.  In 1980, three Dragon Boats were sent to London for a Chinese Festival on the River Thames and the first formal Dragon Boat Race in Great Britain was held in 1981. Over the next few years competitive organizations formed; British in 1987 and European in 1990.  The Asian Dragon Boat Federation followed in 1992 and the first true World Championships for Dragon Boat Racing, as a modern sport, were held in China in 1995.

Since then, Dragon Boat Racing has spread like wildfire around the globe and it’s currently estimated that more than 50 million people now ‘Race the Dragon’ in competitions held in more than 60 countries, on every continent. In August, the 2011 World Championship will be held in Tampa, Florida.

Today, athletes from around the world meet to commemorate Yuan’s sacrifice for honor and justice in the form of Dragon Boat Racing. It’s often heralded as the fastest growing water sport in the US, and one of the fastest-growing corporate team-building activities in the country. The success of the sport has much to do with its low cost, the ease of getting started in the sport, and the uncanny ability of the sport to bond together the groups who train together.

How did Dragon Boat Racing Come to Lansing?

In 2009, some idle time spent on You Tube resulted in the discovery of Dragon Boat Racing.  Aware of the planned redevelopment along the banks of the Grand River in downtown Lansing, 2011 was targeted as the year to create an exciting new community event to celebrate our rebirth as a waterfront community. Conversations with the American Dragon Boat Association in Iowa advanced the development of a race plan, and by coordinating with Michigan Mosaic Music Festival, a fully rounded Labor Day weekend began to evolve. Like-minded community volunteers, including the Lansing Rowing Club, added their time, energy and commitment to develop the CAPITAL CITY DRAGON BOAT RACE.  Partnerships with The Greater Lansing Sports Authority and Team Lansing Foundation added key assistance. To insure that proceeds of the CCDBR would be devoted to improvement along this section of the river, Mid-MEAC (Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council) was chosen as the 2011 recipient and in return, offered crucial support to bring the race to life.  Initial marketing through social media resulted in immediate community excitement and teams began forming within days. Volunteers and Sponsors continue to step forward, offering their welcomed support.

The CAPITAL CITY DRAGON BOAT RACE will provide not only a ‘stay-cation’ for our Mid-Michigan communities, but will also become a destination event, attracting both traveling Dragon Boat Racing teams and visitors seeking a unique holiday weekend experience.

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Thanks go to the ABDA, the IDBF and Dragonboatdc.com for historical information.