Palette Magazine

Dragon Boat Racing is Catching Fire

Andrew Printer

Battle in the Bay in Marathon in May
Battle in the Bay in Marathon in May

While many water sports are solitary pursuits  — think of the patient fisherman or the lone swimmer — dragon boat racing is, without a doubt, not one of these. Instead, it’s an exhilarating contest between two or more teams of wild-eyed paddlers, with each rower committed to getting a sleek, yet menacing boat across the finish line first.

That spectacle was on full display at the recent Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival, a full day of races that has taken place at Sombrero Beach in Marathon since 2009.

“It’s such a great experience,” Kristen DiFender gushes from a huddle of damp teammates just after the second of three races. The teammates are all wearing bright red t-shirts, celebrating their win with a jello-shot slurped from a wedge of lemon. “Last year I was roped into rowing at the last minute,” DiFender says. “This year I’m captain of the Conch Monsters.” She points to a cap that has her team’s name spelled out in giant glittery letters.

DiFender’s enthusiasm is palpable, but it comes as no surprise.

Even though dragon boats have been racing in southern China for at least 2,000 years, the sport’s popularity soared when Hong Kong revived the ancient ritual in the 1970s. Now, dragon boat racing is one of the fastest growing team sports in the world, complete with rules, regulations and Olympic aspirations.

But what is a dragon boat? At 40 feet in length, it belongs to the larger family of longboats. The Chinese version differs from those associated with African and South Pacific Island cultures, however, because of the decorative dragon heads and tails each boat is rigged with for competition. Most boats are designed for 20 paddlers seated two abreast, plus a drummer in the front and a coxswain in the back.

That’s a lot of people! But part of dragon boat racing’s great appeal throughout the world is that it is accessible to and enjoyed by people of all ages and all abilities.

Ten teams competed at the most recent Battle in the Bay. They came from all over the region, including the formidable Red Dragons from Miami. And the demographics were all over the map, too. On one team, a muscular young man paddled alongside a middle-aged breast cancer survivor. Later in the day, a team of experienced rowers were pitted against a crew of novices. In the end, it didn’t matter which team won. The race was about fitness, friendship and fun.

As the Battle in the Bay drew to a close, a team of women from Anna Maria Island formed a circle near the water’s edge. They spent a few moments stretching their tired muscles and then swarmed together to let out a galvanizing roar before their final race.

Nearby, a team of younger men and women happily belted out “Hooked on a Feeling.” Their ukulele-playing captain leaned away from the group between choruses to shout, “It’s how we stay motivated,” before returning to the group singalong.