It’s still dark, which means it’s early, which means I’m in a miserable mood. People usually only get up this early if they have a flight to catch, but I’m out of bed to catch a very different mode of transport: a dragon boat. I don’t know a great deal about dragons or boats, but it seems the two have combined to make a rather popular sport – so popular it’s worth getting out of bed at 5.30am. As my taxi spirits me through silent, sleepy streets, I’m still not convinced.
Happily, there are signs of life when I reach Barasti – a gaggle of spritely, vest-clad men and women, brandishing paddles or lugging cool-boxes down to the beach. As much as I want to begrudge their cheerful disposition, it’s difficult now that the sunlight is beginning to squeeze through the gaps in Dubai’s towering skyline, revealing a city I’ve never seen before – hushed, tranquil and serene. My meditative moment is interrupted by Francis Porter, captain of the Dubai Dawn Patrol dragon boat team, who introduces himself and implores me to help carry some equipment to the beach. It’s clear I’m not just here for ride – I’m expected to get involved.
Happily, I’m broken in gently. Once we’re down at the beach, Francis introduces me to the rest of the crew and we gather round for our warm-up. Dragon boating is all about back and core strength, so we start the appropriate warm-ups – arms, shoulders, lower and upper back. It’s a humid morning, and by the time I finish stretching I’ve got a healthy bead on – worrying, considering the real work has yet to begin. Francis issues me with a suitably sized paddle, which I’m told to hold with straight arms, using the strength of my back to pull it through the water. Francis admits he’s given me a bit of a crash course in dragon boating, but this morning happens to be the Dawn Patrol team’s last practice before a race in Abu Dhabi. There would usually be two boats – one for beginners and one for more experienced paddlers – but today I’m in with the team.
No pressure, then. We line up either side of the long, narrow boat, hoist it up and shuffle into the calm, warm water. Once the boast is afloat we clamber in, a task that I seem to find more difficult than everybody else. I eventually manage to plant my backside firmly on the wooden bench, ingratiating myself with the rest of the crew by managing not to capsize the boat. Francis orders the team to shift their weight to the edge of the boat, and though I’m still capsize-conscious I timidly oblige. Next, I’m told to spread my weight by placing my outside foot forward, with my inside leg back under me. I’m ready to go – paddles are held high and, on Francis’s command, the whole crew leans forward in unison and thrusts the paddles into the water.
At international dragon boat festivals, a traditional drummer has to accompany the crew at the front of the boat – Francis says the best drummers are paddlers who know the strokes and can bellow orders from the front (feisty girls are normally very good at this, apparently). Sadly, we haven’t a feisty girl on hand today, so we rely on Francis to call the stroke. I’m surprised at how much speed we manage to achieve from the off, and though I’m a little out of time with the rest of the more experienced crew (occasionally clanking paddles with the person in front of me), the technique is easy enough to pick up. I finally relax and begin to find my rhythm. There’s something hypnotic about the way the boat surges through the water, which is just as well because it distracts from an otherwise tough workout.
After an hour or so of practising different strokes and different speeds, Francis seems happy with the crew’s performance and we head home. As we paddle back, I look up to catch a glimpse of the lazy morning sun emerging from behind the skyscrapers. It’s then I understand why dragons and boats are worth getting out of bed for.
Dubai Dawn Patrol welcome new paddlers. The first three sessions are free; annual membership is Dhs1,000. Beginners’ meetings are on Saturdays at 4.30pm on Barasti beach. For info, see www.dubaidawnpatrol.org or call Francis (050 708 7238)