Paddling Technique

The dragon boat paddling technique employed by RRDBC is designed to protect the spine and utilise the big muscles of the back, legs and core. In this way, we can ensure the longevity of our paddling involvement, while getting a healthy workout and producing a powerful stroke.

Begin by ensuring you are seated correctly in the boat – both feet forward (knees at no less than a 90-degree angle); sitting up tall + strong with your outside thigh locked in to the side of the boat. Imagine your buttock closest to the side of the boat is pinned to the seat, which will allow the other buttock to swivel back + forth with the rotation of the stroke.

There are five key parts to the dragon boat stroke. When done properly, a boat glides; executed improperly, the boat will feel sluggish and heavy.

  • The “set up– arms extend up + forward into the “paddles up” position. To reach forward, we need to rotate our body from the hips. We do this by pushing off the inside foot, straightening the inside leg to move the inside hip backwards. This opens the chest to the inside of the boat (or “back to the water”). Every stroke begins and ends with this strong “A frame” position.
  • The “catch – once we have extended forward through our rotation, we are ready to push the blade down into the water. We do this by dropping the torso (bending at the hips and stretching forwards), rather than pushing with the arms alone. This is often referred to as the “body drop”. It is the top/inside arm that does all the work in pushing the blade down into the water. You are trying to keep the blade vertical or at a forward angle on entry into the water.
  • The “power phase – once the blade is fully buried in the water, only then do you continue to drive down with the inside hand and pull with the outside hand. At the same time, start to sit back up by immediately lifting your head and pulling hard through your abdominal muscles rather than lifting your shoulders. The pressure will remain on the blade right until the back end of the stroke as you counter rotate (inside hip moves forward) and you are sitting up square again.

Maximum power and endurance will come from using the larger muscles of the back, shoulder and trunk rather than relying on the smaller arm muscles. The paddle should pull back directly parallel with the boat. It helps to visualise placing the paddle into a thick substance (like wet cement), then using your body to pull up to the paddle which will result in the boat moving forward. We think of all this action as being “out in front”. The stroke is finished when your outside hand (keeping the outside arm straight) comes alongside your hip – we call this the back end of the stroke. The whole blade is submerged for this entire phase of the stroke.

  • The “exit” – once you reach the back end of the stroke, lift the paddle with your top/inside hand + allow the upper part of the outside arm to move away from your body. The action is like drawing a sword out of its scabbard, and the motion is up and forward at the same time, allowing for a clean exit from the water. A common mistake is to lift with the outside (lower) arm, but concentrating on lifting with the top hand, combined with a slight twist of each wrist (referred to as “feathering”) as the upper arm moves away from the body, will help to avoid this.
  • The “recovery– this is the part of the stroke where there is no resistance on the blade (as it moves through the air). Therefore, this part of the stroke should be relaxed but fast, as if the paddle is being pulled forward by an elastic band. It helps to envisage the outside hand “punching” out along the gunwale. During recovery, the torso starts rotating + leaning forward to set-up for another cycle of the stroke.

Recovery speed plays a large role in determining the stroke rate. It is important not to hesitate at the back end of the stroke, but to return immediately to the “set up” position, in preparation for “the catch”. Your body should be moving forward + not in a neutral or stationary position at the back end of the stroke

Sometimes you will hear the phrase “pause at the front”. While paddling a dragon boat involves a continuous cycle of movement, the “A frame” position on the set-up is like a snapshot in time, whereby the body appears to hold this position for moment (with the paddle poised just above the water) as you elongate your torso and commence the “body drop” into the catch. The slower the stroke rate, the more emphasised this “pause” will be. The pause will come when you think of this position (between the set-up and the catch) as the beginning + end of every stroke.

Don’t expect to “get it” all at once – most of us take lots of practice to learn this skill, which is both mentally and physically challenging, and there are some days when it just doesn’t feel right at all! If you attend training regularly (try to get there twice a week) your muscle memory will kick in and it will get easier. Don’t hesitate to ask the coach any questions you may have.

Your coaches will help you fine-tune your technique, however you may like to check out this very informative video from the Australian Dragon Boat Federation head coach Serghei Cucsa.

Happy paddling!

From the coaching team

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