“Keep timing! Power now!” These are the phrases you might hear a caller — the person drumming at the front of a dragon boat — shout during a race to keep the team paddling swiftly and with force. That might make the water sport sound intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. Athletes say you should try it, whether you’re 17 or 70. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The sport: A dragon boat is essentially a canoe, but it’s about 40 feet long and outfitted in a dragon head and tail, per Chinese tradition. It’s also powered by 22 people: 10 paddlers on each side who propel the boat forward with 4-foot paddles, a caller who keeps the paddlers on time, and a steerer who keeps the boat on course. The boats move fast; most teams finish a 500-meter race in about two minutes, said Taylor Mar, a coach for the Los Angeles Racing Dragons. He calls dragon boat racing the ultimate team sport because each paddler has to stroke at the same time with the same form.
The perks: The sport doesn’t just fire up your arms; it’s a full-body workout since each stroke originates from your quadriceps, hamstrings and core. The scenery isn’t too bad either: L.A. Harbor Dragon Boat Club director Paul Puskar said his teams enjoy the sunshine and often spot gray whales near their practice spot in San Pedro.
But the most enticing aspect might be the social one. “You can train, you can be in shape, but the secret to success is really synchronicity: working together as a team,” Puskar said. “There’s a great camaraderie that develops as a unit.” Mar said the same thing, adding that his team often gets together for food after practice.
Getting started: Many teams invite newcomers to participate in a few practices for free any time of year before signing up for a membership, no experience necessary. Look up your desired team’s practice schedule online and send an email expressing interest. And there’s no need to bulk up at the gym before you go. Come as you are; just don’t call it “rowing” instead of “paddling,” a dragon boat faux pas. “If you want to have fun and you’re willing to get wet, that’s pretty much the prerequisite,” Mar said.
Moving up: You can’t dragon boat solo, but you can practice your form on your own time in a one-person outrigger canoe. They start at $4,500 from popular brand Puakea Designs, but many people buy them used from outrigger canoe teams.
The commitment: Most Southern California dragon boat teams practice year-round (with some times of the year more relaxed than others), and two to three times a week for about two hours. The number of races varies by team based on interest, but many compete in about six events per season. Teams range from more recreational ones to more competitive ones, so choose one that matches your goals, Puskar said.
The cost: For most teams, a yearly membership fee (usually between $100 and $200) covers boat use and other fees. If you want to attend races, you’re responsible for transportation costs and, depending on the team, registration fees.
Learn more: Find out more by going online to club and team websites, such as the Los Angeles Racing Dragons (laracingdragons.org) and L.A. Harbor Dragon Boat Club (laharbordragonboat.com). More teams (including youth teams) can be found at Southern California Dragon Boat Club, scdbc.org.