My afternoon plans to go dragon boat racing on Houhai Lake in downtown Beijing could have started better. Cycling across town, a pedal snapped off my bicycle as I was aggressively building up speed across a Second Ring Road junction. I was thrown to the ground, thankfully when no traffic was coming. Dusting off and realizing the biggest wound was probably to my pride, I locked up my bike and continued by taxi, proudly telling myself this was exactly the kind of spirit and true grit needed of a dedicated racer.
Increasingly, it seems dragon boat racing could be this summer's fun way to get fit. I'd heard about it from two friends and when I arrived at Houhai, I immediately ran into more familiar faces, along with a healthy mix of locals and a variety of expats from Australia, Britain, Canada, Singapore and the United States. After a quick warm-up and introduction, we were split into two boats—those who had rowed before and the surprisingly high number of newbies. All inexperienced participants were about to be trained in the two most important disciplines of dragon boat racing—power and timing.
We were barely out onto the lake when our instructor, perched at the back of the boat shouting "power, power… 1, 2, 3, 4, timing, timing…" stopped us. Almost every one of us was rowing wrong. Most of us were just making the basic error of not holding the oar right at the top and plunging it deep and straight into the water; of course there is always one who is being a little lazier than the others and a gentle example was made of his ineffectual rowing technique. And no, it wasn't me.
Corrected, we tried again, powering our way into the middle of the lake and being guided by our ever-vocal leader around those enjoying the lake in a more sedate fashion; families on pedal boats and older Chinese guys swimming. Now that we had improved our method of holding the oar, it was time to learn to row as a team.
"What you need to do," explained the experienced Australian at the front, "is try and watch the movement of the person at the front of the boat but on the opposite side to you. When their hand goes down, yours should too. This keeps the rowing synchronized on both sides and prevents a caterpillar effect of everyone rowing at different times."
"So when Phil keeps hitting my oar, that's not good, right?" quipped my friend sitting directly in front of me. He should have been thankful; later, while so focused on staying in time with the person on the opposite side, I managed to whack his elbow with my oar instead. Luckily, it wasn't a bad contact.
After a few more drills, a lot of inadvertent soakings and taking it in turns, row by row, to power the boat solo for 40 strokes, we stopped in the middle for one last exercise. The front two rows turned around to face backwards… our instructor wanted us to row against each other, like a rugby scrum in a boat. The two in the middle, insisting they were being saved for the final race against the experienced boaters, were required to do nothing but get soaked in the subsequent frantic splashing.
And so it was time for the finale, a 500-meter race against the other boat. After a bit of friendly banter as we lined up, I was feeling confident. Ok, so maybe our technique needed work but there was no denying we looked stronger. But I've watched enough sport to know, brute force alone is not always enough.
From the word "Go" we put our all into it; collectively wanting to prove we belonged and remembering the techniques we'd been taught… build momentum with 10 slow, powerful strokes that should see you "reaching your oar almost in line with the arse of the person in front of you," before switching to 30 shorter, faster strokes, then 10 more of power. Keeping count to maintain concentration, we opened up an early lead which merely served to ramp up the pressure. No one wanted to be the newbie who slacked off and let the team down now, but we had started fast and still had 250m to go.
Muscles aching, shirts soaking but with the boat house—and finish line—in sight, we kept going, hearing the shouts of the other boat closing in. "Thirty more strokes," yelled our man at the back. Counting them in, breathless but invigorated, we made it to the shore first, and managed whoops of joy before hands clasped shoulders sapped of all energy.
It was time to gloat in our induction day victory over lakeside beers with newfound friends and discuss maybe going to watch some of the professionals do this, over much longer distances, at the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival (June 16).
The author is from Wales and lives in Beijing