What is dragon boat racing?

Dragon boat races are something of a spectacle, consisting of at least two dragon boats competing against each other in sprint races over distances from 200 to 2000 metres and more. Dragon boating tests not just the endurance and technique of it’s paddlers, but also their ability to work harmoniously in a team.

What is a dragon boat?

Each dragon boat has a carved dragon’s head at the bow and a tail in the stern, with a hull that is usually painted with dragon scales. The paddles of the dragon boat symbolically represent the claws to be in line with the classical depiction of the dragon from Chinese culture.

Dragon boat head

The team

Dragon boating is a team-based paddling sport with origins in ancient China. The team of a dragon boat comprises 22 team members.


The history of dragon boating

years ago


Dragon boat racing has ancient Chinese origins and its history can be traced back more than 2000 years.

Dragon boat racing is thought to have been held in celebration of the 5th day of the 5th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, by superstitious villagers seeking to encourage rain. Fittingly, the Asian dragon is seen as a traditional symbol of water ruling the seas; it is for this reason these boats take the form of a dragon on their bows and stern.

Classic illustrated image of a Chinese dragon emerging from the water

The saga of Qu Yuan

Over the years, a second story seeks to explain the origins of the original dragon boating festival through the story of Qu Yuan.

Legend has it that poet Qu Yuan was banished by corrupt ministers from the kingdom of Chu, spending his days composing poetry before drowning himself in the River Mi Lo after learning of his kingdom’s defeat.

Ink painting portrait of Qu Yuan

The birth of dragon boating

Popular legend states that local villagers tried in vain to save Qu Yuan and his spirit by splashing at the water with their paddles and beating drums to ward away evil spirits. This account is said to have birthed the tradition of the annual Dragon Boat Festival.

Classic painting of the first Dragon boat festival


Modern Dragon Boating

Modern dragon boat racing as we know it today originated in 1970s Hong Kong, with the first International Dragon Boat Festival being staged. This event was held in part to promote Hong Kong on a global stage, and was followed by the first Hong Kong International Races in 1976.

1976 Hong Kong Dragon boat festival. Photo by Brian Brake


Soon becoming an annual event and the unofficial world championship of the sport, crews competing in this event gradually began to form their own dragon boat associations in their respective countries, with organisations such as the European Dragon Boat Federation (EDBF) and International Dragon Boat Federation being created.

The IDBF has since established federations in Oceania, Africa and Pan America. Modern dragon boating competitions now occur in over 90 countries worldwide.

Head of a dragon boat on the water

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Official 'Dotting of the eyes' dragon boating ceremony

Dragon boat traditions

There is also an element of cultural tradition to dragon boating. When the races are over, the dragon's head, tail, and drum are removed from each boat and stored either in a temple or in another place agreed upon by the community, with incense burnt to thank the gods.

Here in the UK, we perform a version of this ceremony on all new boats or at the beginning of a season to tribute these traditions, known as the eye-dotting ceremony.

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Dragon boating news & events

Read up on some of the latest news and events relating to dragon boating and any announcements we’ve made related to our club.

Sherborne Country Fair

BWD met with 24 teams of Dragon boaters to compete in a three race heat at the Sherborne Country Fair on Bank Holiday Monday. Read on to learn the outcome.

Bourne Water Dragons Celebrate 5th Anniversary

The Bourne Water Dragons Celebrate their 5th anniversary of helping cancer survivors stay active and have a community for support.

A busy week for the Bourne Water Dragons!

Volunteers flock down to Iford in preparation of the Bourne Water Dragon's 5 anniversary.

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