Sync Or Swim

24 August 2016

Some of Malaysia’s most passionate dragon boaters are trying their best to keep the sport afloat.

Dragon boating – the elusive water sport that originated in ancient China some 2,000 years ago – is the embodiment of teamwork, collaboration and camaraderie. 

“In dragon boating, there’s no place for a single superstar or individual. It’s always about the team,” Lee Shih of KL Barbarians says.

In Kuala Lumpur, at the core of the dragon boating scene is the KL Barbarians team founded by Lee Shih in 2011. In its five years of attempting to bring dragon boating to the forefront of Malaysian sports, Lee Shih and his team have motivated many fresh faces.

“I would say 99 percent of the people who come in – and most of the existing KL Barbarians members – started off with zero experience in any sort of dragon boating,” he says.

After a feel of the paddle, some return the following weeks to commence training – a period of six months where boaters are taken through techniques, and partake in friendly races.

However, it’s not always as easy as the boaters make it out to be. “In a season, we’ll be training hundreds of hours. A race lasts for about a minute or two,” Lee Shih says. “So you’re compressing literally hundreds of hours of work spread across six months into a two-minute race.”

In a race, there are typically five or six straight course lanes – 200m and 500m –and each boat moves in a linear formation to the finish line. Races are broken into heat rounds, which culminate in a final to determine the winning team.

But it’s not all about speed. There are techniques and methods that can only be mastered with coaching, and as much as they’re easy to learn, they’re just as difficult to master.

Chong Ju Vern, a dragon boating coach with Argo Naga, says, “The basic paddling is fairly easy. But the actual nuances of the stroke takes about two years to master.”

Plus, synchronisation is a big factor in succeeding as a team. Boaters must paddle in exactly the same pace as each other, and therein lies the challenge.

“Everyone is not built the same, everyone doesn’t have the same level of fitness and strength,” Ju Vern explains. “The challenge is to find that sweet spot where everyone can paddle at the same pace.”

Meanwhile, the steerer who stands at the back of the boat directs the boat and helps to keep it in a straight line, while the drummer helps boaters with the timing of their paddles and helps to boost morale during a race.

Both KL Barbarians and Argo Naga are game changers in bringing awareness to the sport, but some organisations and firms are taking paddles into their own hands. A case in point is Skrine Dragons, set up as an offshoot of law firm Skrine.

Not only does the sport cultivate teamwork among colleagues, the flat hierarchy in dragon boating echoes well with corporations. Angela Yap of the Skrine Dragons concurs: “[Dragon boating] takes us out of the rigid office environment and plops us all into the same boat (literally) to bond.”

Angela adds that there are only a handful of corporate teams in Malaysia at the moment, and it would be exciting to see more of them crop up within firms. “It creates a sense of identity and camaraderie [among colleagues].”

However, because of a lack of accessibility and resources, the sport doesn’t reach to as many people as it should. Lee Shih laments that a lot of manpower is needed to build human capital and buy hardware.

As it is, boats are expensive to rent and competitions are costly to organise. Girlie Tan of sports event management company Harlie Venture says that the cost of running a dragon boat festival can start from RM300,000 to cover things like purchasing of boats, installation of lanes and the laying of pontoons.

Despite the stumbling blocks, Lee Shih is optimistic about the sport’s future in Malaysia. “My real wish is to see far more people pick up dragon boating in Malaysia, and for it to one day get Olympic recognition.” Till then, he’ll keep on paddling.


By Surekha Ragavan

Photos of KL Barbarians courtesy of Passion Portraits

Photos of Argo Naga and Skrine Dragons courtesy of respective teams

This article is related to CULTURE OFF THE BEAT