Do the dragon boats ever…flip?

I’ve been coaching and steering dragon boats for 9 years and during 8 of them, my answer was always, “They can… but I haven’t.. yet.” It’s actually quite rare to see a dragon boat capsize because paddling during hazardous weather is the number one rule we don’t break. White caps or windy, the Wizard of Oz weather keeps us on land. However, when a festival is planned a year in advance with thousands of people ready and eager to race on a single day, sometimes (with precaution), you make it work with the weather. 

Have you ever tipped? Do they flip? ” This is one of the most common questions I’ve been asked during my career as a dragon boater.

The captain always goes down with the ship dragon boat

I remember the first time I saw a boat go over. I was young – 21 and quite new to racing dragon boats. It was a rainy festival in Orillia, Ontario. I did not prepare for the weather and remember my hands shaking from the wetness and cold. However, the endless smiling faces of this festival (which happens at every festival) kept me warm. I had met a new coach today. He had a fun supply teacher vibe – not the kind of teacher that would just throw on a movie, but one whose voice would sound of adventure and wisdom. He was a veteran coach; a leader, and wore an orange pylon cone wrapped around his neck to project his voice – one he designed himself. While parked at the dock, he was bailing out small amounts of splashed water from the boat from the previous race. A paddler from the next team asked the proverbial question: “can these tip?” The coach answered with a demonstration. 

As he sat in the dragon boat safely docked, he leaned all his weight to one side (like a slanted sail boat) and forced the water to ‘pool’ and make it easier to fill the bail buckets. “These boats are designed to stay afloat. Look how much weight I’m putting on this side of the boat and it’s still safe,” he explained. As I overheard this conversation, I helped my next team into the boat, while explaining safety standards, “Keep your hips to the side, listen to your coach and steersman, please don’t stand up, and don’t forget- have fun! ” The team answered with some enthusiastic high fives. As we headed past the red and green buoyed race course and towards the start line, we didn’t get more than 10 strokes from the dock where I looked ahead into the mist and well…. you can guess what I saw.

The same old man and the rest of his team had veered off course from racing in their lane, and started quickly drifting sideways – eventually sinking the boat with everyone going for a little swim with the waves. Everyone safe, floating, and still smiling. It’s generally a smooth transition with a capsize because of our dragon boat safety protocols: 

  1. Employ the buddy system. Learn your seat partner’s name, as its your job to call out to your partner to make sure they are safe
  2. Do not swim to shore alone, stay with the boat for a proper head count
  3. The worst case scenario is if you find yourself under the boat (which rarely happens). Luckily, the boats are designed with large air pockets for you to breathe, safely swim out from under the dragon boat when you are ready.

Staying afloat… in a dragon boat

After nine years on the water, I would sporadically witness some boats and their paddlers going for a swim – which, on a hot day – isn’t so bad. That being said, that’s a different story paddling on the Mississippi River! Paddling all over North America, I started to feel somewhat….invincible! Not a superior feeling, more a sense of pride and confidence. Capsizes are usually a result of large, white-capped waves OR paddlers not following the safety rules – so communication is extremely important on the water.

One of the ways the boat stays afloat is by distributing the weight of the paddlers evenly. Generally, pairs of paddlers are matched in regards to their body shape and weight so each row has even distributed weight. It’s important for paddlers to stay close to their side of the boat, and even leaning over the hull slightly – this helps keep the weight outside the boat and balanced.

“Good ol, Kempenfelt Bay, whatta ya say?”

After dragon boating around 1000 races around North America with myriad charities, races with dolphins, and high tides – I found myself in my hometown at my favorite festival in Barrie, Ontario. I’ve done this festival 8 years in a row. I know these waters and practice on them all summer long. “Good ol, Kempenfelt Bay, whatta ya say.” The 8am morning races are always so beautiful with such calm water – like glass. However, as the afternoon got busier with more boat traffic, the waves had arrived and reminded us – it’s their home too. As I approached the start line with a familiar team, one I’d coached all summer long – large waves began to crash into the side of our boat. During a dragon boat start, “a starter” on a separate, motorized boat is positioned off to the side and using a megaphone helps the steerspeople align their dragon boats evenly. It’s quite exciting with a lot of organized shouting and concentration, especially when the waters are rough. Once all boats are in alignment, it’s important to start the race as soon as possible so they don’t drift and give one team an advantage.

Starter: “All boats hold!

the dragon boats align together at the start line

Starter: “Attention Please.” 

everyone readies their paddles, digging them deep into the water, anxiously waiting for the horn to signal the start of the race

BANG!

Cheering and shouting commence at all angles as 80-100 paddlers stroke hard. Being the outside lane and exposed to the main body of the lake – bigger and bigger waves begin to crash into us, knocking our boat out of position yet staying in our lane. We withstand mother nature and with each wave that says “hello,” our boat begins to fill with more and more water. Miraculously, with a dragon boat half full of water we finish the race in FIRST place. The team cheers loudly with exhausted yet triumphant faces. As the steersperson situated at the back of the boat – I quickly recognize our new water weight and instructed a few paddlers to bail water and the rest to paddle back to shore. As I steer the dragon boat towards the docks, one last wave came crashing into us and finished us off. What was interesting is we didn’t flip. Our boat simply had too much water in it and calmly began to slowly sink… It was a strange yet peaceful moment, surrendering to the lake. The safety boats arrived immediately, and everyone found their partner and we exited the water right near the shore. The festival was briefly paused to reel in the sunken dragon as well as to wait until the waves calmed down. Quite a humbling experience – a long time coming. 


“so…do they flip?”

So, to answer the question again, “Do they flip?.” I would answer similarly, “They can, but it’s very rare and I have never seen a boat flip on a practice day. I’ve been a part of over 2000 races and can count on one hand the number of capsizes I’ve seen. The only time a dragon boat tips, sinks, or flips is when there are extreme weather conditions (which we are likely not paddling in– especially on a non-festival day). This means you can enjoy what Corporate Recess loves about dragon boating: The camaraderie and community. The flowing feeling of being in unison with 20 other people to the sound of a drum beat. Soaking in the sun as it warms your skin. The open water that calms your soul. As well as the occasional, majestic bird that flies by to say hello. 

Paddling on Kempenfelt Bay is always a great day.