Dragon Boat Hints & Tips (Small Boats)

Top tips for dragon boaters entering the Marlow Dragon Boat Festival

These tips are designed to give you information in advance about dragon boat racing so that you can get the most out of the event. 

Tip #1 – Get to know your team and boat

You should begin thinking about your paddlers and who is occupying your boat.  The boat you will be racing in at the Marlow Dragon Boat Festival  is a Hong Kong style dragon boat which is 30ft long, takes 10 paddlers, 1 drummer all of which you need to provide. A professional helmsman will be provided by the event organisers for you on the day of the event.

Where do you place each paddler in the boat?

The key thing is that the boat is balanced as best as possible left to right, front and back and have everyone in a comfortable position.

The drummer should be a lighter member of your crew – we recommend ideally no more than 11 stone, who has a good sense of rhythm.

Tip #2 – The importance of cadence

Most of us know what a cadence is. However, I thought it would be important to define it in relation to dragon boat racing. According to the Oxford Dictionary Cadence is: rhythm; the measure or beat of a sound or movement.

The beat of the cadence comes from the lead paddlers. The lead paddlers set the rhythm of the stroke. The drummer beats the drum to the pace of the lead paddler’s strokes. Voila, you have a cadence.

The cadence provides each paddler with the timing and the speed of the strokes. Synchronization is one of the major key components of getting your team to the finish line as efficiently and fast as possible!

And I don’t know about you, but when I hear a drum beat, I just can’t help but move to it! The same thing applies to paddling. You will be surprised at how the drummer and the cadence will keep the paddles moving.Set featured image

Tip #3 – Paddle or Oar?

Since many people do not know what dragon boat racing is, (don’t be embarrassed I hear this all the time) it does not surprise me that many people also do not know how or what propels the dragon boat forward in the water. These tips are to get you acquainted, so let’s proceed!

A common misconception is that dragon boats are equipped with oars. This is incorrect. In boats that use oars there are rowlocks available. There are no rowlocks on a dragon boat. Hence, the paddler is the main support for the paddle.

Tip #4 – Paddling technique

The paddle in dragon boat racing is traditionally made of wood, but some of the top teams now use carbon fibre paddles.  At the event you will be supplied with plastic paddles which conform to the BDA (British Dragon Boat Racing Association) specification.

The paddle is used to move the water while propelling the boat forward. The paddler holds the paddle with two hands one at the top of the handle, the other closer to the top of the paddle blade. The paddle is drawn down through the water from front to back to drive the boat forward.

Paddlers may want to wear gloves to prevent blistering if they are not used to paddling often.

Tip #5 – Command your team!

These are the standard paddling terms that are used in dragon boat racing.  The team captain should become familiar with these teams and brief the team on them before the day of the event.  If all team members understand the terms before the event your team will work more efficiently and you will look like you have been dragon boat racing for years!

Here they are:

ARE YOU READY – paddles in a relaxed position, vertical over the water, pointed at 90 degrees to the side of the boat.

ATTENTION – paddles above the water ready to take a stroke.

GO – command to start paddling.

EASY – paddling stops and boat runs along the water on its own.

STOP PADDLING – stop the boat quickly.  If the boat is moving in a  forwards direction, you need to paddle the boat backward to bring it to a stop and vice versa.

BACK PADDLING – get ready to paddle backwards – GO – start paddling backwards.

Tip #6 – Command your team!

It is important to understand the different parts of the stroke. If the team is in sync with their stroke then the boat will move smoothly. If the team struggles with their positions and stroke the boat will feel sluggish. There are 5 parts of a stroke rotation: reach, catch, pull, exit and recovery

The diagram shows the optimal position for each paddler to be in.

Reach – The “A” frame position is the proper position for setting up your stroke. Analyze this position and try to implement it as best as possible.

Catch – The catch position is the moment the paddle enters the water. DO not rotate the paddle if you do, that will decrease the effectiveness of the stroke. With the proper reach position, the catch phase of the stroke will be the most effective.

Pull – Pull the paddle directly parallel to the boat. The paddle should be in a vertical position. Make sure paddlers are sitting up and using the larger back muscles to get the full force of the stroke.

Exit – Exit the paddle from the water when the paddle reaches the hip region.

Recovery – This is when the paddler rests. Depending on the rate of the stroke this may be a long period or a short period. This is also the time that the paddler gets ready and into position for the next stroke.


Check out this video on proper paddling technique

Tip #7 – The inner workings of the paddling team

The dragon boat should be broken into 3 sections….. 

Pacers – These are the front four paddlers. As you can tell by their name they set the pace at the beginning of the race. As stated in a previous tip, the drummer will get the beat from the front 2 paddlers. This beat will set the pace for the rest of the team.

The Engine Room – Consists of stronger paddlers. These paddlers will determine the pace of the race during the race. When the “engine room” paddlers are not able to complete a full stroke you will be able to tell that the pace is too fast for your team.

The Back 2  These are the strongest paddlers. These paddlers are the “get up and go” during a race. They help propel the boat with powerful strokes. The rest of team will quickly follow as it can feel the boat thrust forward.

Now it is important to remember that the water moves at a different rate from the front of the boat to the back. Each section of paddlers will have to adjust their stroke accordingly.

Make sure that as you are preparing your team you are thinking about the weight distribution and placement of each member. Having a boat off balance will seriously affect your time. It would be a good idea to look at the boat diagram, print it off and place team members in specific spots as you acquire them. Your helm on the day of the event with quickly be able to make adjustments when you load the boat to ensure the boat is balance and safe to go out.

Tip #8 – The Buddy System

Your team needs to be familiar with the buddy system before they take to the water.

The buddy system is used in the case of a capsize, as a quick check to ensure that everyone in the boat is accounted for.

Let me explain how the buddy system works.

When the team capsizes and ends up in the water each paddler looks out for the person sat on the same bench as them, numbers 2 & 3 also look out for the drummer.  The back pair also look out for the helm.

The helm will then call out numbers – “Number one  – are you there?” number one responds “Number one – here!”…. then ….. “Number two  – are you there?” number two responds “Number two – here!”…. then ….“Number three  – are you there?” number three responds “Number three – here!” – etc, etc, all the way to the back of the boat until the helm has called an accounted for each person in the boat.  This exercise will only take a few seconds.

The crew should all stay close the boat.  the buoyancy aids you are wearing will keep you afloat and the safety boat and crew will quickly be with you to take control in getting your crew safely back to the bank.