Dragon Boat Festival


Traffic was thick as we made our way inch by inch toward our destination. We’d wisely decided to leave our car at home and take a taxi, as this gave us freedom to walk the last few blocks and avoid traffic jams. Crowds were converging on Singapore River for their annual dragon boat festival.

This festival is not as threatening as the name may indicate to the uninitiated. The dragon, in Chinese folklore, is actually a benign and protective creature and highly esteemed. Chinese respect and cherish the dragon as a symbol of nationhood. Dragon boat festivals are a competition between crews of elaborately decorated long canoe like craft.

Teams were already warming up on the river in their colorful craft to the clash of gongs and drums noisily manipulated by supporters on the river bank. Hawkers darting about among the crowd advertised their wares enticing to eat drink and be merry on this festive occasion. We found an available space, spread our handkerchiefs on the pavement to sit on, and settled down to watch the fun.

The fun that day consisted of more than dragon boat racing. Teams of water skiers from Australia “Down Under” had been hired to entertain the crowd while dragon boats prepared for the event. The crowd roared approval as each dare devil feat was performed. But they soon tired of that. They’d come to see the dragon boats race, and as time of commencement drew near the mood of the crowd became noticeably upbeat.

The standard crew of a contemporary dragon boat is around 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, one drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 steerer or tiller (helm) at the rear of the boat, although for races it’s common to have just 18 paddlers. Dragon boats vary in length, and crew size will vary accordingly from small dragon boats with 10 paddlers up to the massive traditional boats which have upwards of 50 paddlers, plus drummer and steerer.

Teams from all over the Asia Pacific area had come to compete that day; due to an ever widening influence of Chinese culture. There’s an increasing interest in dragon boat racing as Chinese migration circles the globe. Each team on the Singapore River was in superb condition that day, and races closely contested.

Traditional dragon boats with 40 to 50 paddlers are so long the drum is positioned in the middle of the boat so all paddlers can hear it amidst the noise of heated competition. However for smaller dragon boats of 20 paddlers most often used in competitive sporting events, the drum is located just aft of the dragon headed prow. The drummer may be considered the “heartbeat” of the dragon boat, and leads the crew throughout a race with a rhythmic beating of a drum to indicate the timing and frequency of paddling strokes. He exhorts crew to perform at their peak. Drummers could be heard loud and clear that day.

Dragon boat teams must be united with actions perfectly balanced. Those able to maintain discipline in the ranks took prizes that day, and we’d occasion to see what happened when drummers failed to develop rhythm and inspire their team with calls and hand signals. Supporters on the river bank were unforgiving when that happened, and there was much agitation pushing and shoving of losers when crews disembarked at the pontoon. Winners were given a hero’s welcome.

I learned something special from that day by the Singapore River. As an administrator I was responsible to my team, and signals I gave needed to be clear if strategic machinery was to work to a rhythm and achieve organizational objectives. Training of the crew was important, but being one with a team vital.

“© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved”

For further information on Dragon Boats go to the following web site.

20 thoughts on “Dragon Boat Festival

  1. I bet it takes a whole lot of practice to do that. 40 to 50 paddlers would be something to see, I have never heard of anything like that. I can easily understand how it would not go so well when someone got out of rhythm. It sounds like those races would be exciting. Thanks for sharing this, I learned something new by visiting your blog sweet Ian. Hugs


  2. Good read, lovely description, I could hear those drummers and the oars slicing the water. The last paragraph is an elegant concluding message and so true.
    I love dragons although mine are more European in style. I even painted on my garage wall. He is European although I added a flaming pearl over the background view of downtown Austin – what frivolity!


  3. The Dragon Boats are incredible when they move through the water with precision. Good storytelling as always Ian. Love how you weave this into how we operate in our professional lives, wonderful insight.


  4. Hello Ian,

    The Dragon Boat Races in Singapore (as elsewhere, I’m sure) are adrenalin charged events – for the participants and spectators, as you rightly pointed out. We have teams even from the southern Indian state of Kerala – boating is a major activity in that riverine state.

    Of course, all this became possible on the Singapore River – notorious for filth and debris – only after we had it cleaned it up – thanks to Lee Kuan Yew’s single minded pursuit.

    All good wishes,


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