Form and Function

Dragon Boat Crew Function, Paddling Technique, and Dragon Boat Terms

The Boat Crew

The boat crew is broken into three sections, the front which is the first four paddlers, the engine room which is the middle two paddlers and the back which is last four paddlers. Weight of the paddlers must be taken into consideration when setting up the boat. Any serious weight distribution problems will adversely affect how the boat tracks for steering. The biggest paddlers are placed in the middle or engine room and lighter paddlers at the front and back sections.

The Steersman

The steersperson is 100% responsible for the safety of the crew. The steersperson has the best view of any obstructions on the water and must make the required commands to the crew to manoeuver the boat. In race situations the steersperson must also be able to read wind and be knowledgeable of how the boat reacts in certain conditions. It is not good enough that the steersperson can just keep the boat straight, he or she must be able to bring the boat to the line in whatever wind conditions and make the manoeuvers or commands to hold the boat on the line.


The Turbo Section

The back four paddlers of the boat should have the strongest people in the boat. It is not uncommon for a novice crew to setup the boat with weaker paddlers who get out of stroke. For an intermediate crew or an advanced crew this would be a missed opportunity. A series which is a sequence of more powerful strokes meant to advance the boat and is initiated by the back four paddlers and ripples to the front of the boat.


The The Engine Room

The middle two or the engine room is usually reserved for the heavier, stronger paddlers. During the middle of the race the engine room dictates the pace. The stroke rate of the crew is usually determine by the engine room. The stroke rate is not too fast as long as the big engine room paddlers can twist and reach. Once the engine room paddlers start shortening up on their stroke, you know the pace is getting too fast.


The Strokers

The front four paddlers set the pace and should be reserved for paddlers with good long paddling strokes. The rest of the boat needs something visual to follow. The rest of the boat will have short choppy stroke if the front has short choppy strokes.


The Drummer

Typically a smaller, lighter person with a big voice. This position is responsible for calling the race for the team. He/she beats the drum in time to the paddle strokes and shouts out encouragement to the team. The caller works together with the steersperson to make sure the team runs a good race.

Paddling Technique

Most importantly, remember: This is NOT rowing. This is NOT canoeing. This is NOT kayaking.

The biggest challenge of dragon boat racing is managing synchrony. Since there is no gym exercise for building synchrony, teams that spend more time practicing on water tend to have an advantage.

There are four (4) basic phases of paddling:

1. “Catch” as you lean forward, turn your body slightly toward you partner and submerge your paddle in the water. Make sure that the full blade catches water.
2. “Pull” as you lean back to pull water. Propulsion of the boat is based on countering that water resistance you feel. Therefore the boat experiences maximum propulsion as the full blades of all 20 paddlers catch and pull at the same time.
3. “Finish” as you pull the blade out of the water. This phase signals the completion of your first stroke and preparation for the next stroke.
4. “Reach” as you lean forward again to prepare for the “Catch” phase of your next stroke.

The “finish” and “reach” phases are sometimes known as “ready-and-reach”. Together, they are also addressed as the “recovery” phase.

In the “catch” phase, how far should you lean and how much body turning should you have? If you are a beginner, imagine doing that again and again until you finish a race course of 250 meters or longer. Don’t freak out as “practice makes perfect”. Perfect execution requires physical conditioning outside of dragon boating. In the ”catch” phase, your abdominals and shoulders matter most. Regular crunches and shoulder lifts using dumbbells will condition these body parts.


"Paddles Up" 
Twist torso to show your back to the shore.
Reach forward! The blade should be beside the thigh of the paddler in front of you.
Keep inside hand high, at least as high as your forehead.
Prepare for "leg drive", where you securely prop one or both feet against a bench or footrest.

"The Catch or Entry"
Reach forward and drive the top arm down, while the blade is as far forward as possible without losing timing. Some coaches may encourage spinal lean to lengthen the pull segment.
The paddle appears almost vertical when viewed from the front of the boat, but appears 45 degrees from horizontal when viewed from the shore.

"Bury the paddle" 
"Bury" the paddle as deep as your fitness and timing will allow: Ideally your lower hand touches the water.
Keep the paddle blade perpendicular to the keel of the boat at all times. If you increase paddling rate, then you will have to decrease the paddle depth to maintain timing. Ask your coach about this. 

This motion is very short... the lower hand only travels 12 to 14 inches backwards until it reaches the paddler's knee. 
You "un-twist" your upper body (your shoulders become perpendicular to the boat for an instant), and simultaneously sit up straight  (any spinal lean becomes a vertical spine, recruiting lower back erectors) by pushing forward on the paddle handle, levering the upper paddle forward.


Exit begins at the knee, and the blade tip fully leaves the water before the hip.  The upper arm is allowed to drop slightly as a brief rest, and the paddle blade exits the water diagonally.*
The blade tip is only  6 inches above the water surface.
*some teams emphasize a more vertical exit, other teams emphasize a more diagonal exit. Ask your coach about this


Dragon Boat Terms and Definitions

Whether it is your Captain, drummer or your steersman, your team should decide who's going to be giving the commands well before you get on the water. While some teams may have their own set of "calls", these are the most universal.


  • "Paddles up" - Paddles should be in the "Up" position preparing for the "The Catch or Entry"
  • "Take it away" - This term is used when leaving the dock heading for the starting line. It simple means begin paddling.
  • "Let it ride" or "Let it run" - Stop paddling and let the boat continue forward
  • "Hold the boat" - Bury the blade in the water, straight down, to stop the boat.
  • "Steady the boat" or "Check the boat" - Rest the shaft of your paddle on the gunnel and the blade flat on the water to give the boat extra stability.
  • "Draw the boat (left or right side)" - Used when docking, hold the paddle out, away from the boat, with the blade perpendicular to the gunnel and pull or "draw" in.
  • "Hot-seating" - Refers to the same paddler being used on multiple teams. While USDBF-sanctioned races do not allow this, the Lure of the Dragons Race + Festival does.


When your team is being positioned on the starting line, the Starting Line Attendant now has command of your boat. While the Captain, drummer or steersman may repeat these calls, the Attendant has final say.


  • "Back paddle" - Paddle the boat backwards, but keep your lead in front of you.
  • "Are you ready?" - Paddles should be in the "Up" position preparing for the "Catch" or "Entry"
  • "Attention please" - Paddles will be in the "Bury the Paddle" position. The next sound you hear will be an air horn signaling the start of the race
  • "Lane" - This is the lane you will be following during your race. A team can be disqualified for crossing into the other teams lane.
  • "Spin Out" - When a boat crosses lanes or veers off on the start of a heat. A spin out / leaving the race lane is not a protestable incident. It is the crew’s responsibility to keep the boat on course.
    In the event of a spinout, it is the steersman's call if the race continues. The crew may:
    1. Continue the race upon recovery
    2. Shut down the boat, return to the starting line and re-run the heat
    The other boat in the heat should always continue running the heat.
  • "Shut down" - In the event of a spinout, the steersman will call for the boat to "Shut Down". It simply means to stop paddling, hold the boat, and await further instruction.