11 June 2009

Racing the dragon

Forget the pent-up frustration of being confined to an office - it's time for a completely different type of exercise in the great outdoors. It's called dragon boat racing.

Forget the pent-up frustration of being confined to an office. It's time for a completely different type of exercise in the great outdoors. BY CARINE VISAGIE

If you live in Cape Town, like I do, and your office building hugs both Signal Hill and the harbour, it becomes quite trying to sit quietly in front of your computer as giddy sea gulls fly past your window.

Fortunately, however, I've just discovered a brilliant way of getting rid of my pent-up frustration – a solution that's been on my doorstep all along and one that could also be an option for you.

Just a stone's throw away from the office, a group of enthusiastic paddlers have been getting together twice a week, come rain or shine, to do dragon boat racing at the V&A Waterfront. I was invited to join a practise session and so, on a beautiful spring morning, joined Team Mujaji in what turned out to be one of the most thrilling exercise experiences I've had in a long time.

A brief history
Dragon boat racing originated in China over 2 400 years ago and is one of the oldest organised competitions in the world. To this day, so-called regattas (a series of boat races) are held around the world in which teams from different countries compete.

A dragon boat vaguely resembles a canoe. It's long and narrow, although much, much bigger and is built to carry around 20 paddlers. The word "paddler", as opposed to "rower" is used, since dragon boating resembles canoeing in that paddles are freely held. Paddlers also sit facing the front of the boat and not the back, as is the case with rowing.

Traditionally, the boats were decorated to resemble dragons. These mythical creatures were, of course, admired for their power, strength and magic. Decorative dragon heads and tails are still often used during competitions, although these adornments are usually taken off during practise sessions.

The sport was first introduced to South Africa in 1992 when two boats were presented to Cape Town by Taiwan. In February 2006, the Western Cape Dragon Boat Association took custodianship of two more dragon boats, bringing Cape Town's fleet to four. Johannesburg now also has a fleet of boats, proving that the charm of dragon boating isn't just limited to sea water.

What to expect
I anticipated that I would really struggle to keep up with the rest of the paddlers, but to my surprise I found it relatively easy to go along with them (and I wasn't that fit). We paddled up and down the harbour for about an hour to the delight of many a trigger-happy tourist.

During that hour we took turns paddling: first all 20 paddlers, then the two at the front, the two behind them and so forth. At once stage, I even had to keep the boat moving forward on my own – fortunately, just for a minute or so.

The training session was planned to improve endurance, strength, paddling and racing technique, teamwork and, of course, speed. Thus, the session was also quite varied in that we first warmed up and then did different sets of exercises, each aimed at achieving one of these goals.

Sometimes we had to paddle harder, while other times we had to paddle faster or focus on our technique.

Getting the technique right was tricky at first. But I got the hang of it about halfway through the practise session. According to my paddling partner, this is pretty much the rule for most people.

The technique is clearly illustrated on you basically hold the paddle firmly with both hands so that your inner arm is held high. The idea is then to let the paddle enter the water almost two seats ahead of you. To achieve this, your back is bent forward, but also twisted, so that you face the paddler sitting next to you.

The biggest challenges are to keep your inner arm straight, to synchronise your movements with the rest of the team, so that you don't knock the paddle behind or in front of you, and to minimise your splashes.

The thrill of it
It was love at first sight: dragon boat racing surprised me in many ways.

I absolutely loved the fact that I was exercising on water, with Table Mountain in the background, bright and early on a Saturday morning. It felt like a good workout, without being too exhausting, and I felt invigorated and relaxed after the session with the Mujaji team.

But for paddling partner Kim Roberg, long-time member of Mujaji, the motivation lies in race days: "The experience of being in a racing dragon boat, with two or more boats alongside, is absolutely thrilling. From the moment you paddle out to the start line, the tension and adrenaline starts flowing."

Kim notes that dragon boat racing is excellent exercise, saying that you use your stomach, arms, back, legs and even your brain for the timing issues. My sore muscles confirmed this the following day.

More good news is that doing dragon boat racing is a cost effective way of exercising. With Mujaji, the first session is free. Thereafter it's R10 a session if you're not signed up, and R50 a month if you're a signed-up member. Most teams practise two to three times a week.

Sign up
For more information on where and how to join a dragon boat team, click here.

- (Carine Visagie, Health24, updated June 2009)



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