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Dragon boat, Physics, Sport

What goes into a dragon boat line up?

Dragon Blades paddling

Dragon Blades heading down to our first race in the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival

This weekend was the Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival. I paddle and co-coach Dragon Blades, which used to be made up of skaters and family members from the Edmonton Speed Skating Club, but in all honesty is now more friends than skaters. We had an amazing festival, finishing 5th overall. There were a lot of things that went into that finish: we have worked incredibly hard all season, we have a growing core of dedicated paddlers, we have fun and maintain a positive environment throughout the season. We also had the good fortune this year of having extra paddlers for this festival.

Dragon boating, not surprisingly, originated in China, with archaeological evidence tracing the boats back 5000 years. Today there is a thriving international competition in dragon boat racing, with the hopes that it will one day make it to the Olympics. There is a steersperson at the back of the boat, a drummer at the front, and 20 paddlers sitting in 10 benches. It is these 20 paddlers that I want to talk about.

At festival, you hear people talk about throwing line ups together, but I can’t figure out how they throw something as complex as a line up together. Even when I was coaching a novice team, I would be discussing the line up with our steersperson after every practice and every race. I was constantly tweaking it to get the best set up and give us the most opportunity for success. This weekend I spent several hours working out the line ups – a task made more difficult by the fact that we were able to sit someone each race, so the paddlers in the boat changed with each race. So what went into our line ups this weekend?

The most obvious consideration is weight. It is much easier for a steersperson to keep the boat going straight if the boat is balanced from right to left, and fairly balanced from back to front. This is easier said than done however because you need to consider which side different paddlers are stronger on. We were typically heavier on our right side if everyone was on their “happiest” side. It really helps to have a few people who are truly able to paddle both sides when it comes to festival, and sometimes this is where your novice paddlers come in to play. If you train both sides in practice, which we do, most novice paddlers haven’t had time to really figure out which is their stronger side so they are often the most flexible people in the boat.

Next, you need to consider people’s height. The benches are different lengths, so putting someone who is 5’2” in the middle of the boat can make life difficult. I’m 5’10” and I went into bench 1 for the fun, throw random teams together for a one kilometer challenge race. Not only do I have trouble getting my leg out of the way of my body movement because the foot brace is too close here, but I also had long enough reach that I actually punched the side of the drum at the front of the boat a couple times. So, generally speaking you need your tallest people in the middle of the boat, and your heaviest people in the middle of the boat. Unfortunately, those two are not always the same.

Strength is the next consideration. You need strong paddlers everywhere in the boat, but they do have to manage that strength differently. At the front of the boat you have to be able to get the water moving, at the back of the boat you have to be able to control your paddle so that you can continue to accelerate the water, instead of the water accelerating the paddle. This is one of the reasons that it is good to have paddlers train in different spots of the boat. Then you can put them where you need them, instead of the only spot they are comfortable.

There is an incredible amount of science that goes into sport, but most of the time we don’t even realize that we are doing it. Everything that I have just talked about affects the physics of the boat: how we are balanced, where is our optimum force, is everyone’s force adding to the total, displacement, fluid mechanics (did I mention that in Edmonton we race upstream on the North Saskatchewan River), etc. The funny thing is that we do a lot of this because it makes sense within this context. And yet, physics students often have trouble seeing how the topics they are studying relate to “real life”. Perhaps this could be a class project, creating the line ups for different dragon boat teams.

This hasn’t even begun to take into account the psychological aspects of the line up, but that will be the topic of the next post.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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