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Penang International Dragon Boat Race

Penang International Dragon Boat RaceChinese dragon boat racing is an annual international event being held in Penang. It actually started way long before, when the Chinese fishermen in George Town raced their boats following the tradition they brought back from their homeland in China. There is a story why the Chinese race these boats.

Before long, its popularity increased and the Penang state decided to organize the event properly. Now, Penang's Chinese dragon boat racing competition draws participants from as far as New Zealand and Montreal.

Teluk Bahang Dam
Teluk Bahang Dam plays host to the 2008 Chinese Dragon Boat racing in Penang

The venue of this race had changed over the years too. For 2008, the Chinese dragon boat racing was organized together with the 6th Club Crew World Championship and also the 8th Asian Dragon Boat Race.

International dragon boat race in Penang used to be held at sheltered cove off the beach of Gurney Drive. Now, for the last few years, the current place for holding the race is at the Teluk Bahang Dam. The dam is actually the main water reservoir for the island, it is man-made, but nonetheless, very beautiful. A spectacular venue, if you ask me. The boats look very well at home against the backdrop of nature.

This large body of water is perfect for the race. Please do not think that this artificial lake is always calm, or the water level remains the same. When there is a wind blowing, you would get similar choppy waves and ripples just like out in the open sea.

It is a challenging course, especially if you have crosswind. There are a few instances when some teams had to be disqualified because they could not stay on course.

The row of dragon boats lined up for the battle
The row of dragon boats lined up for the battle

The kind of boats used are standards to the specifications of IDBF (International Dragon Boat Federation). There are two sizes of boats. One is the smaller one for ten paddlers while the other is for twenty paddlers. Both types have one helmsman and one drummer. The drummer sets the pace with the drum and instructs the paddlers whether to use long or short strokes. It is exciting!

Paddlers at the Teluk Bahang Dam
Paddlers hard at work, rowing in unison

The shape of the boats, the hulls being long and narrow are perfect for riding the waves. The principle is similar to the Vikings long boats which used to terrorize Northern Europe centuries ago. The differences are that the dragon boats are open boats with no cargo holds, do not use sails or have any masts.

Chinese dragon boats racing
Off they go!

Maybe that is the reason that 25% of the clubs which enter the race this year came from Canada. Them being the descendents of Erik the Red who braved the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to land in North America. The fact that Canada has so many large bodies of water around the whole country also makes the sport very popular there.

However, the use of the drum is not compulsory since some clubs hardly use the drum to set their pace during their training. Because this is a Chinese dragon boat racing, boats are equipped with a drum each. One of the ladies whom I spoke to, told me, back in Canada, the drum they use is much smaller also, not big ones like we have here in Penang.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
Super Dolphins with their funny logo

Boats are provided by the organizer. Only some clubs had the luxury of shipping their own. They are of basically the same weight and feel, lighter ones would be weighted down with sandbags. Their number was drawn by team captains, so it is basically a fair deal.

There are many categories which are held over four days. Thousands of participants, all well trained athletes who work together as teams for at least six months to prepare for this Chinese dragon boat racing tournament. Basically they are divided into age groups and gender. There are some mixed events too, including "open" category.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
Power Blades is one of over 480 teams competing

The distance covered are 200 meters, 500 meters and also 2000 meters. At the shout of :"Are you ready?", and the loud hailer, they are off. The teams make it look effortless as they glide over water.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
A team going in for an event

However, as in other sports, they are dedicated athletes who train and eat well to be the best. The coach says "No" to pizzas, the team are only allowed fruits or power bars before their race.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
Hardened "warriors" returning from the war zone

They are crazy about rowing. It is amusing to see their club emblems and the various names they call themselves. Dragons in all kinds of interpretation are used as the logo. Not only young people are competing, the lady I spoke to is 67 and her husband is 79. Both are still going strong and passionate about this sport.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
Another team coming back from their event

Their t-shirts, jerseys or wet suits are also designed exclusively to reflect the club's motto. It was interesting that Crocs sandals seemed to be the choice of quite a few clubs instead of other hi-tech sandals. The reason is because Crocs sandals come in many bright colors and they are practical too for the purpose.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race Penang International Dragon Boat Race
Left: The pink ladies with their Crocs sandals
Right: The shirt says it all: 20 years Out Pinking, Out Paddling & Out Partying

One of the teams that get quite a bit of attention are the ladies rowers from Iran. Even though they are garbed in white overall suits covering their bodies and hair, they are winners in the ladies 500m category. It shows that under a good coach (their coach is Canadian, by the way), and the right attitude, anyone can win any race, no matter what you are wearing.

White fully-suited Iranian women team

I remember when I was working at one of semiconductor manufacturing plants in Penang back in early 1990's, we had our own dragon boat team too. The paddlers really worked hard for months training for the big event. No doubt, it was a team effort. Before a Chinese dragon boat racing starts, the leader gave last minute instructions and each team shouted their rallying cry to boost morale.

Coming home in the bus, a couple of Chinese girls from China were sitting behind us. They befriended my children and gave them a souvenir. It turned out they were working for a company in Dalian, a city east of Beijing, which manufactured the boats for the competition. I learned the story behind the Chinese dragon boat racing legend from them. I was also given a brochure about their company's products. Ah, now I know, in China, Chinese Dragon Boat Association uses a different specification. They are twenty two paddlers instead, so their boat is longer than IDBF standard.

Penang International Dragon Boat Race
This show boat is a hit with children and adults alike

The boats are built according to strict specifications. The material used are fiber glass with wooden frame. The price of each boat starts from USD6000.00 and comes complete with the drum, paddles, the dragon's head, its tail and also decal design on its hull. Oh yes, these dragon boats are exported all over the world, including Russia, the Czech Republic and Dubai. Wherever the race is held.

The tradition of Chinese dragon boat racing started to commemorate a Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, (pronounced as Chu Yuan) who drowned himself. To avoid his body from being eaten by the fish, the people make loud splashing noise with their oars and used drums and cymbals to drive the fish away. Bak Chang (glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves or bamboo leaves) were sprinkled into the lake so that the fish would feast on this food instead of the poet's body. It was a sacrilege for the Chinese people if the poet's body was devoured by the aquatic animals. This is how the dragon boat race started.

It is now a sporting event with millions of fans, but it started from a Chinese legend. I could say it is one of the fewer sports that glorifies our heritage. This sporting event is truly a way to bridge any gap between culture, races or religions.

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Dragon Boat Race
23-24 May 09
was here again
at Teluk Bahang!
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