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What Every Rower Needs to Know About Dragon Boating

What Every Rower Needs to Know About Dragon Boating

NK's own Katie Godfrey celebrates 19 years on the US national dragon boat team and shares what is the same and different from rowing.

Nineteen years in any sport is a long time. Nineteen years on a national team is a remarkable achievement. Katie Godfrey, who has been selected to the US National Dragon Boat team for the 19th year, doesn't miss a beat, literally and figuratively. She is the drummer for Premier Open team, the only woman in a crew of men. Katie, Senior Global Account Executive at Nielsen-Kellerman, will be heading to Thailand in August to represent the United States in the World Dragon Boat Racing Championships. Katie used to cox rowing. Lessons from rowing have been useful for her dragon boating. Turns out that there are a few things that rowers could learn about dragon boating.

Some interesting facts

Rowers are in awe of an elite crew which can crank the rate above 40 strokes per minute. Elite dragon boaters would consider that pathetic. For a 2000m race, Katie's crew is usually at 80 strokes per minute. On the 500m or 200m sprint races, the very best crews are at 180 strokes per minute. And believe it or not, the Speedcoach GPS 2 can measure that rate. Not that it is used in an actual race – no time for glancing at the screen. But it is a good training tool in dragon boating as in rowing.

The roles that a rowing coxswain performs require two people in dragon boating. As a drummer, Katie does not steer. Billy Heffernan will be steering Katie's boat at the World Championships, as he has done for 19 years with her. While ferociously drumming, Katie talks to the crew, implementing the coach's race plan and motivating the paddlers to push through the pain. Given the boat's speed and the noise of all the other drummers and splashing water, it is more accurate to say Katie screams at her crew. Regardless, she still uses a CoxBox Mini with microphone, strapped to her leg.

The drummer does not set the stroke rate. A dragon boat crew has 20 paddlers in two rows of ten. This means that there are two strokes. The drummer is required to hit the drum with every stroke. Katie watches the stroke to her left. International competition rules also require that the drummer's hand go above their shoulder each time, making drumming a physically demanding role, especially at elevated rates.

The origin of dragon boating has multiple versions. Some say it started as a folk ritual on the Yangtze River in China, appeasing rain gods and encouraging rain for the summer rice planning. Others say it is linked to the veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. Katie tells the story of a famous and beloved Chinese poet who deliberately drowned in a river - villagers raced out to save him, drumming to drive the fishes and dragons away from the poet's body. Dragon boat racing is at least 2,500 years old, although 1976 is recognized as its official debut as an international sport with a competition held in Hong Kong.

Rowing vs. dragon boating

Some things are the same. Both sports are full-body workouts. Especially at the elite level, paddlers use a leg drive and a lot of core muscles. The communities around both sports are very strong. Katie talks about the connections among the team members and with competing crews, using words like family. As with rowing, dragon boaters can mature with their sport, with many national teams benefiting from the experience of older athletes. How Katie motivates her crews to win their many gold medals is not unlike the calls she made when coxing a rowing team to success.

The most obvious difference is that dragon boating is a paddle sport with the paddlers facing forward and no riggers or oarlocks. Unlike rowing, national teams and most competitors at any level do not travel to events and races with their own boats. The paddlers bring their paddles and the drummer their stick. Katie has had her stick since her very first international event in China – she forgot to return one that had been loaned to her. That stick is better traveled than many people. Katie always takes a backup CoxBox Mini plus spare wiring and speakers.

World Dragon Boat Racing Championships, the equivalent of the World Rowing Championships, are held every second year. Katie has raced that event in China, Poland, Germany, Australia, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, Hungary, Canada, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Countries are represented by their national teams, with strong representation from Asia and North America plus a growing number of European teams. Races are held in buoyed lanes on the same courses used by rowers. The racing is loud, fast and furious.

Team USA Drummer: Katie Godfrey Image Credit: Tommy Leonardi

The Club Crew World Championships are held in alternate years, with the 2022 edition hosted in Sarasota, FL. Countries can have multiple crews attending. This is where the sport is growing. There are more and more local festivals and team-building events. Katie's national team is partly sponsored by her home club in Philadelphia hosting an annual festival in early June. This year, 130 boats will race in the Independence Dragon Boat Festival. The sport is popular amongst breast cancer survivors and para paddlers are increasingly participating.

It is easier to get started and race at the national level in dragon boating than in rowing. Katie was recruited at a cocktail party, when someone asked her if she wanted to go to China. A few drinks in, she agreed. Four weeks later she was racing there with the national team. She had not fully mastered the drumming, but her coxing experience was invaluable. She knew how to translate the coach's race plan and how to motivate the team. Facing backwards, she had to learn to read landmarks to judge distance to the finish. She discovered that her team was strongly motivated by references to the USA and the potential for medals, and they also responded well to intense swearing.

So which is better?

Katie still loves rowing. She still sometimes coxes crews for the Head of the Charles Regatta, including a boat with Alix James, President of Nielsen-Kellerman. She considers rowing a bit more refined, requiring more finesse and constant learning and improvement. But she really, really loves dragon boating. Rowing is just too slow.