Dragon boat racing has become a popular way to get in shape, have fun and experience teamwork.

Dragon Boat Paddling: How to Join the Fun

On the lakes and waterways of the San Francisco Bay Area and other large urban areas, you may have seen teams of rowers paddling long, unfamiliar boats. These are Dragon Boat teams getting ready for competition! In fact, chances are, they’re training for the annual Dragon Boat racing season. This traditional Chinese sport and cultural activity is on the rise, with teams and races all over the world. The 24th Annual Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival will be held September 28th and 29th, 2019 at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Dozens of teams from around the U.S. and the world participate in the colorful and exciting event.

There are many reasons paddling is becoming popular, and teamwork is a big part of it. This is the ultimate team sport, with one boat consisting of twenty paddlers, a drummer, and a steers-person. All 20 paddlers have to move in sync for the boat to move forward quickly and smoothly.

Paddling is a good balance to other fitness activities such as running, which are individual and can be very solitary. There’s a group atmosphere and dynamic that keeps you motivated because people expect you to be there and perform your responsibilities. My captain says being on a dragon boat team is analogous to running the Bay to Breakers in a centipede.

Paddling isn’t a cardio sport, but it does offer a good workout, predominately from the hips up. It works muscles you don’t use all the time, unless you play a sport that involves rotation like tennis. Kayaking is a fairly good analogue, but outrigger canoeing is the closest to dragon boating. If cardio is what you’re after, you might prefer ultra, where the race only lasts two and a half minutes and it’s more of a sprint sport.

You don’t have to be a strong athlete to be part of a dragon boat team, either. Some people are great paddlers, some people are just average, but everyone contributes in different ways. You can be giving rides, preparing foods, handling paperwork, and keeping other people on track. Our team has only been around for four years and we’ve had nonprofit status from the second year on. We subsidize all activities, we’re members of a yacht club, and people brought in their professional expertise to make all those things happen. It’s like being part of a small company and you have to all work together.

Another benefit of paddling is that you can have great longevity. If you were to go to the various dragon boat races, you would see people rowing who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be doing much physical activity anymore, such as older folks and people who have health problems or who are overweight. There are all these myths about aging, that when you’re older you can’t be strong or fast, but some of these things are still possible. And you can definitely keep paddling late into life. Also, there’s little equipment involved, and no big investment.

If you’re interested in getting involved in dragon boat racing, check out the websites for the National Association and the California Dragon Boat Association.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, dragon boat paddling has become very popular and there are many local teams, which are always looking for new members. Lots of teams practice at San Francisco’s Lake Merced on the weekend, so go down and express an interest. New members are always welcome!

Brian Soo is a senior physical therapist at the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center who works inpatient, outpatient, and in sports medicine.  A recreational runner for many years, Brian also bicycles, plays racquetball, and most importantly, paddles on a 20-person Dragon Boat team that competes internationally and practices three times a week. He also enjoys active video games and believes they can be an excellent complement to an overall fitness regime.