Training with a Hong Kong dragon boat team gives you a full-body workout

OarAhead of this weekend's Tuen Ng festival,Hannah Grogan trains with a champion dragon boat team hungry for more glory

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 June, 2015, 6:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 2:30pm

The last time I was close to a dragon boat, it was made out of cardboard, styrofoam and glue. I was seven years old and it was a diorama for my third grade class. My boat was anything but water resistant and, suffice it to say, I didn't win any trophies that year.

But ahead of this weekend's action-packed day, I found myself aboard a more authentic dragon boat with a champion racing team that has its sights set on winning again.

The Dragon Boat festival, or Tuen Ng, is an annual holiday that falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. It marks the death, in 278BC, of poet and patriot Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in a river, in Hunan province, in protest against corruption. Legend has it that to stop the fish from devouring his body, local villagers took to their boats, splashing paddles, beating drums and throwing rice into the water.

And thus the Dragon Boat festival traditions were born.

It's 10am on Sunday and showing me the ropes is Sai Kung-based team Altius Dragon. Training starts from the Sai Kung Promenade and, before even touching a paddle, the team is taken through a series of stretches focusing on core and upper-body strength.

Unlike many other teams, Altius Dragon trains year round - taking only a short break for Lunar New Year - in preparation for the big day. All that hard work paid off last year when the team walked away as Sai Kung champions in the mixed team division for standard boat.

When I arrive, I'm greeted by enthusiastic team members getting ready to hit the water. It's clear this is not just a sport for the super fit, or the young or men only, with people of all ages, sizes and abilities joining in the stretches.

"We all come from different walks of life," says team member Michelle Chow. "We have an architect, a lifeguard, accountants, a teacher, even some descendants of local fishermen."

Once the team is out on the water, however, all occupations fade into the background as everyone focuses on synchronising their strokes to get the boat moving as a unit.

The training itself is a full-body workout involving a series of different high-intensity interval strokes. "During training [we get into] intense paddling where we have short bursts and then we have a short recovery time, then we have a short burst again," says Chow.

The Sunday training session is as much about having fun as it is about fitness. It's a much more relaxed vibe than weekday evening trainings, says teammate Edwin Lam who has been involved in the sport for almost 10 years. "Sunday is not as intense; it's a lot more fun, with swimming and fishing."

During training [we get into] intense paddling where we have short bursts and then we have a short recovery time, then we have a short burst again
 Michelle Chow

Despite living in Mei Foo, Lam, who works in the finance industry, still makes it to training three times during the week and on Sundays. He considers dragon boating a healthy respite from work.

"Even though the practice is very tiring, you can throw out [your work life] and just focus on your training. I think everyone should try; it's good exercise … and it's fun and relaxing. I enjoy the practice, and it's a bonus if we win something in competition," he says.

On their weekend practices, the team always finds time for a midway break on a nearby beach. Once near shore, they hop off the boat and into the water to cool off.

Healthy snacks are prepared weekly by the team's "snack queen". Today, it's home-made jelly with longan and goji berries, and there's plenty of freshly cut watermelon to go around. While everyone rehydrates, the team's coach explains the art of dragon boat racing to me.

"It's a tradition from China and I hope to continue it. I love the sport and feel I have a responsibility to promote and teach it," says head coach Sing-yeah Shek, who has been involved with the sport since 1978 and a coach for almost 20 years.

Shek is supportive of his hometown, Sai Kung, which attracted more than 3,000 participants to last year's races. "Sai Kung has a great advantage. The sea [here] is a safe place to practise compared with many other places," he says.

Touting the sport's health benefits, Shek attributes his recovery from nasopharyngeal cancer (he was diagnosed four years ago) largely to dragon boating.

"Because of my background and health, my recovery has been easier than for most people," Shek says.

"It's quite an intense sport under a fierce sun, so it might not suit some people, and you do have to listen to your body. The benefits of dragon boating include very good cardiovascular capacity - there's a lot of cardio involved and that's the key to good health. It also makes a person happier."

Shek and his wife, both over 60, still paddle and are actively involved with the team.

After a swim and some fruit, it's back into the boat. A few metres from the shore, we rendezvous with some team members in snorkels and flippers who have been trying to catch fish. The modest haul isn't enough for everyone so the fish are released into the sea.

Towards the end of the training session, the team arranges a friendly competition with a nearby boat. It's only a short sprint but Altius Dragon wins. The signs are looking good for this weekend.

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