Ten- to 12-metre long dragon boats – named after the decorative dragon head and tail attached to prow and stern when racing – sprint over a short course, typically 500 metres. They carry a crew of 22. In the bow of the boat sits a drummer, who sets the rhythm and pace of the paddling. Despite the name, in New Zealand the drummer often uses a loud voice or visual cues rather than a drum. A person called the sweep stands in the stern and steers the boat with a long-handled single oar. The 20 paddlers sit in pairs on 10 rows of seats.
The challenge lies in synchronising the paddling of the crew, whose physical size and strength may vary. The equipment needed is simple – a boat, paddles and clothes do not get cold and heavy when wet.
In 2013 there were over 3,000 paddlers in New Zealand. Dragon boating’s emphasis on working together means makes it an effective team-building exercise, and has drawn crews from businesses, councils and the defence force. The similarity between waka (canoeing) and dragon boat racing has attracted Māori teams in the northern half of the North Island. The challenge and camaraderie of dragon boating have also drawn women who have survived breast cancer to the sport. There is a strong secondary school competition.
An old sport
Many sports played in New Zealand developed in the 19th or even 20th century, but dragon boat racing is at least 1,500 years old, rooted in Chinese myth and history. Duanwu Jie, the dragon boat festival, can be traced back to the 5th and 6th centuries when the death of a poet wrongfully exiled by the emperor began to be commemorated, and even further back, to rituals performed to protect rice crops.
In 2013 the competition calendar included races in Auckland, Wellington, Rotorua, Ashburton, and Lake Pegasus, near Christchurch. Top-ranked crews include Christchurch-based Tu Meke and Auckland-based HCWS. New Zealand teams also compete internationally, at events such as the Lee Kum Kee International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships.
Modern dragon boating began in Hong Kong in the 1970s. It was introduced to New Zealand by Olympic kayaking gold medallists Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald in 1984.