Dragon boat racing – that’s a pretty obscure sport, right? ‘Actually, it’s pretty common,’ says Jason Mackenzie, technical director and event organiser for Dragon Boats Alive, the UAE’s official association for the sport. ‘There’s not really a major city in the world these days that doesn’t have a dragon boat festival.’ Well, that told Time Out. See, turns out he’s right.
Ever since the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) created continental federations in the early ’90s, the fever has spread. Although it all began in China around 2,000 years ago, where it remains popular, the first IDBF Club Crew World Championships were held in Vancouver. Europe’s largest dragon boat festival takes place in Malmo, Sweden. Hell, there’s even a British national league.
All this might explain why Dubai International Dragon Boat Festival 2009 expects to draw crowds upwards of 7,000 people per day that turned out last year. This Friday and Saturday, Festival Marina at Dubai Festival City will be filled with canoe-style vessels, decorated like dragons, racing each other along the waterways, paddling to the beat of each boat’s designated drummer. Festival-goers can join in or just watch, and there’s even bouncy castles and face painting for kids.
So, why do so many people like dragon boating? ‘The reason it’s so popular worldwide is that it’s inclusive,’ says Mackenzie. ‘Anybody can do it; it doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, big or small.’ The word ‘strategy’ gets bandied about quite a lot when you talk about dragon boating. Why’s that? ‘Your technique and your teamwork are more important than your fitness,’ Mackenzie explains. That would also account for why anyone can do it. ‘At any level, especially the novices, you could have a group of very young, fit guys on one hand, and a group of fat old men on the other, and you don’t know who’s going to win. The sum of the individuals is greater than the parts.’
Dubai is actually rather good at the sport. The team that Dragon Boats Alive sent to Malaysia to compete in the World Club Crew Championships 2008 finished seventh out of 400 teams. That means they’re among the top 10 dragon boating teams in the world. Don’t let that intimidate you, though. There will be various categories for racing at the festival, from schools, universities, social and corporate, to the more serious (and potentially intimidating) ‘competitive’.
If you’re not keen on boarding a boat, however, there’ll be plenty to keep you occupied as a spectator. Around 1,200 people have signed up to race so far, and there are 16 to 18 people per boat, so that adds up to a lot of races. And if even that doesn’t, um, float your boat, there’ll be quite a party at the Four Seasons Golf Club.
‘We race from 8am until 6pm on Friday, and then there’s the after party,’ says Mackenzie. ‘Then we give everybody a chance to recover from the party and start racing again at 11am on Saturday.’ This means that, as a spectator, you could even create your own sub-sport: spot the dragon boater who overdid it the night before.
Festival Marina, Dubai Festival City, April 3-4. For more information and to register for racing call 04 321 5352 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The after party is at the Four Seasons on Friday, free for people who race, Dhs125 for everyone else (including dinner)