Why You Should Try Dragon Boat Paddling in Portland This Spring

Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland. The annual Rose Festival event is the only local race in which a team member is deployed to catch a flag at the finish line.
Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland. The annual Rose Festival event is the only local race in which a team member is deployed to catch a flag at the finish line. Minuk
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When most Portlanders think about dragon boat paddling, they immediately picture the narrow boats, adorned with brightly colored dragon heads, racing on the Willamette River as part of the Rose Festival every June.

It’s an understandable perception, as up to 90 teams of 25 or more compete in the popular two-day race. But there's a bigger, year-round community that's passionate about dragon boat paddling.

The sport first came to Portland as part of the 1989 Rose Festival but has since blossomed into an all-season activity. More than 40 local teams train throughout the year for regional races in harbors, lakes, and rivers ranging from Salem to British Columbia. “It’s a unique thing to do on the water, and anyone can do it,” says Jeanie Zinn, coach of the Mighty Women Paddling Club and president of DragonSports USA.

With spring arriving early, there’s no better time than now to try the popular team sport. Here are three reasons to get on the water and try dragon boat paddling in Portland this season.

1. It’s actually a full-body workout.

Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland. Teams compete in races throughout the Pacific Northwest, including in Salem, Ore., Kent, Wash., Victoria, B.C., and Vancouver, Wash.
Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland. Teams compete in races throughout the Pacific Northwest, including in Salem, Ore., Kent, Wash., Victoria, B.C., and Vancouver, Wash. Dan S. PDX

Most first-time paddlers and observers assume that dragon boat paddling focuses exclusively on the arms, not realizing that the hips, core, shoulders, chest, and legs get engaged during hour-long practices or short-but-stressful two-minute races. “People think it’s an ‘arm’ sport,” Zinn says. “They don’t realize it’s a complete and total body workout.”

Sure, paddlers work out their arms and shoulders. But successful paddlers use their core, which provides additional leverage and reduces the stress on their arms. Paddlers also use their legs, by pushing off a small platform at their feet, to create a stronger stroke. “It works your muscles in a different way than in any other sport,” Zinn says.

Paddlers get that workout during practices, which generally take place a few times each week on the Willamette River, just south of downtown Portland. Teams launch from the Riverplace Marina and typically head south; during those hour-long practices, teams work on stroke technique, do a variety of drills, and practice for upcoming races, which are either 250 meters or 500 meters.

2. It’s an accessible team sport.

Ask a full boat of 20 paddlers why they like the sport, and you’ll likely get 20 answers. But, for Zinn, “It’s the camaraderie. Being part of a team helps everybody, especially with your motivation.”

Part of that motivation comes from being in the boat and receiving encouragement from the other paddlers (not to mention the caller and tiller) during the dozens of hours teams practice on the water throughout the season.

But teammates also spend time together at races, post-practice get-togethers, trips to out-of-town races, team meetings, and other social functions. “It’s a lot of fun,” Zinn says. “It’s an awesome experience that not many people get to have.”

3. All are welcome to participate.

Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland; more than 40 teams compete in local and regional races throughout the year.
Dragon boat paddling is a popular sport in Portland; more than 40 teams compete in local and regional races throughout the year. Ray Terrill

With more than 40 local teams, prospective paddlers are bound to find one to match their interests or abilities. Some teams have a particular niche, including women-only, seniors, or breast cancer survivors; other co-ed teams offer a mix of recreational and competitive opportunities for would-be paddlers.

The sport isn’t just open to athletes within a particular age range, either; Zinn has coached paddlers between 14 and 90.

A coach or experienced team member will typically work with a new paddler throughout the first practice to help them understand the stroke technique and provide tips (such as how to stay in time with the other paddlers). Beyond that, paddlers tend to pick up the stroke technique through repetition and drills that focus on different parts of the stroke.

Prospective paddlers aren't required to pay much, either; DragonSports USA makes available to teams life jackets, paddles, and the boats, all of which is covered by monthly dues. More experienced paddlers generally buy their own rain gear, life jackets, and paddles, which can range from about $50 for a solid wood paddle to $300 or more for a lightweight carbon fiber paddle, but that's not required.

There are 24 team members on a full boat; a caller shouts instructions and bangs the ceremonial drum during races, a tiller keeps the boat on course, and 20 paddlers try to propel the boat as fast as possible. Several teams have more than 20 paddlers, however, and enter multiple boats at regional races. Per-person race dues vary but typically range from about $25 to $50.

Those interested in joining a team can learn more on the [DragonSports USA website](www.dragonsports.org/dragonsports-teams.html), which lists all of the Portland clubs and contact information for teach team.

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