Racing the dragon: Paddling in a Chinese boat to the beat of a drummer man is not the done thing in Henley-on-Thames. Emma Cook buries her paddle

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The Independent Culture
It all began in fourth-century China when Qu Yuan, a high-ranking minister, was expelled from office. Less thick-skinned than today's politicians, he jumped into the Mi Lo river. Local fishermen raced after him, beating the water with their paddles and throwing in rice dumplings as a sacrifice to his spirit. From this ancient legend, re-enacted every year, Chinese dragon boat racing has evolved to become a celebrated sport in Australia, Canada and, since 1980, Britain.

'We don't bother with the dumplings,' explains Emma Bosley, crew manager of the Henley Dragon Boat Racing Club. 'We just concentrate on the paddling.' It is a cold, dark evening outside Eyot Canoe Club and a group of about 18 of us stand shivering by the river. One man steps forward and takes command. He starts off with some warm-up exercises. The man next to me kicks his legs in the air enthusiastically. 'It's to keep paddle-fit,' he pants.

Exercise over, paddlers clamber into a 40ft elongated gondola. The front of the boat is decorated with a brightly coloured dragon's head, mouth open and tongue extended, while the back is styled into a curled-up serpent's tail.

A drummer sits perches at the front of the boat. Once in motion he begins to beat slowly with one drumstick following the pace of the two front rowers. 'It's tradition. He's really just for show,' admits Emma Bosley. 'He follows our stroke and not the other way round.' The ominous beat echoes across Henley-on-Thames. The atmosphere in the boat is solemn - protracted silence and steely determination: I try to follow the woman in front, pushing my back forward and scooping the paddle into the water with one swift movement.

I rest up and attempt conversation with my neighbour. Do they ever sing or chant to keep up morale? 'No, we're not allowed to talk at all, really. If you chat you're not working hard enough.' The silence continues, broken only by the drum and the sound of 20 paddles hitting the water simultaneously.

We row about two and a half miles up river to the aptly named Temple Island and then back again. Andi, a student and part-time bouncer, sits at the stern. In addition to steering, he bellows out orders army-drill style. 'Atten-shun. Full drive at 100 per cent. 3-2-1. Go, go, go. Bury those paddles. Eyes in the boat. Keep it up. Faster, faster.'

As the boat speeds up for the final haul home, we are effortlessly overtaken by eight racers in a Regatta rowing boat. One or two glance over curiously. Paddling in a Chinese boat to the beat of a drum is still an oddity in such a conservative English setting. 'That's why I like it,' says Bosley. 'They're all a bit snotty in the clubs round here. Dragon boat racing is far more down to earth.'

British Dragon Boat Racing Association (071-930 2296). Clubs: Henley (0734 340155); Kingston (081-941 2714); Rickmansworth (0923 776293); Dockland's Blue Dragons (081-467 5423)

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