Front six

  1. Off-season training
  2. On-water training and schedule
  3. Paddling commands
  4. Technique
  5. Setting up the crew positions
  6. Race preparation
  7. Paddler tips
  8. Steering a dragon boat
  9. Weight training
Coach Ken Gene will answer any training questions asked


All teams of the Stratford Dragon Boat Club train throughout the whole year. Off-season training runs from November to April. Pool paddling takes place at the Stratford YMCA in March and April before getting on the water. Group weight training and paddler erg takes place Saturday morning for Junior and Adult Teams. The focus of the pool paddling sessions is technique and conditioning. Pool paddling consists of having the paddlers sit along side the pool with slimmed down paddles.

The practice starts with stretching and a three to five minute paddling warm-up. For the first half of the practice, the paddlers work on specific drills to improve on various parts of the stroke technique. The second half of the practice is the work-out portion where the team will paddle as group for 20-30 minutes. Each paddler is video taped once per month and an analysis is done by the coach. The video is slowed down to check the various positions like 1/ paddle angle of entry, 2/ setup position and body rotation, 4/ catch, 4/ exit paddle position. As well, the three motions or phases are analysed: 1/ entry, 2/ pull, 3/ recovery.


In Ontario, Canada, most teams start their on-water practices in April once the ice thaws. Objectives for the first half of the season and especially before the first race of the year is to build endurance and refine technique. Early season practices should be to "put in your kilometres". Try to get in at least 8 km and up to 15 km per practice. Although the elite teams may put in 1-1/2 to 2 hrs of paddling, an hour is the average time of most practices. Do a steady slow to moderate pace for these practices. At this point forget about speed and power. Work on technique and endurance. The paddling technique is not a natural motion. The object of this repetitive and often monotonous early season work is to make the paddling technique feel "second nature". How many times a week should you be out on the water? It depends on how competitive your team wants to be and more importantly how may times you can get them out. Recreational teams paddle 1-2 times per week, semi-competitive teams 3-4 times per week, elite teams 5-6 times per week and sometimes even twice per day!

At some point in the season there needs to be a shift from the endurance work to the speed and power training. It has been shown scientifically that endurance work does improve speed and power. Speed and power training changes with increased workout intensity and a decrease in workout volume. Shorter workout pieces are used to develop the "burst of power", for example doing workout paddling pieces from 30 seconds to 3 minutes.

Ideally it is best to plan your workouts working backwards from race day. The week before races should be lower volume but very intense paddling pieces. From about a week to two weeks prior to the race the workouts should be have a high volume plus mid to high intensity. Objectives are to get in the last bit of conditioning and prepare the body to peak for the race. The hard intensity a week to a week and half drains the body of its energy stores to allow the body to start carbo loading. As the volume of the workouts decrease on the week leading up to the race, the body will react by storing more energy (glycogen) in anticipation of tougher workouts.


SIT UP - paddles in the relaxed position, parallel over the water pointed at 90 degrees to the side of the boat.

PADDLES UP - paddles above the water ready to take a stroke. Commonly used for starting the movement of the boat in a non-race situation.

TAKE IT AWAY - command to start paddling.

LET IT RUN (or EASY ALL) - paddling stops and boat coasts to a stop on its own.

HOLD THE BOAT - bringing the boat to a full stop with the use of the paddles.

READY, READY - race command in a start situation for paddles to be placed in position for the first stroke (submerged or out of water).

SERIES - a combination of strokes during a race, often a set of 10 or 20 strokes that are quicker and more forceful.


ROWING - rowers use oars, therefore they are rowers. Dragon boaters use paddles therefore they are paddlers. You do not row a dragon boat!

COXSWAIN (koksn) - steersperson of the boat, often incorrectly referred to a coxman. In this area commonly called the "cox".



The technique that will be discussed is based on flatwater sprint canoe style used by the two time International Dragon Boat Champions - The Canadian Men's Dragon Boat Team. There are six key parts to the dragon boat stroke. When done properly, a boat flies; executed improperly, the boat will feel sluggish and heavy. The first three components set up the stroke, while the last three are considered to be the work-phase part of the stroke. The six components are called: rotation, reach/extension, catch, pull, exit, and recovery. 


The image some coaches use to help paddlers picture rotation is that a pole is inserted through the head, along the spine, and then anchored to the dragon boat seat. Another way of achieving full rotation is to present your back to the shore or have your chest facing your partner. Full rotation, or twist as it is sometimes called, allows for maximum reach/extension. Shoulder position is the key to rotation. For the outside (or bottom) arm shoulder to extend or rotate forward, the top arm shoulder must come back behind your head. Try not to drop the outside shoulder to low. Keep the two shoulders parellel to the water as much as you can. The inside or top arm shoulder needs to move to the water side also to facilitate twist. This also helps to get your weight over the water by leaning out. Throughout all this keep your back straight, head up and stick out your chest.  


This position in the stroke is crucial in maximizing the length of the stroke. The position of the outside paddling arm is equivalent to pulling a bow and arrow. The outside shoulder should be dropped slightly and also extended forward. The torso leans forward for additional extension. 

A proper reach position is the foundation of a proper dragon boat stroke. The reach position is the extended position with the paddle a few inches above the water before the driving it into the water. This reach position determines the length of a stroke and a long stroke means more water is pulled. The reach position is the end point of the Recovery phase, but is the beginning of a new stroke cycle. 

The reach position determines the rotation of the torso. If the torso is "rotated" forward upon the paddle entering the water, the torso will naturally want to "de-rotate" back to the normal seated upright seated position.  

As mentioned previously, the lower arm position is similar to drawing a bow and arrow. The bottom arm is extended straight forward parallel to the water. The lower shoulder is dropped and is extended forward and therefore the shoulder on the top hand side comes back and up. In the Reach position, these four points on the body should be lined up in a vertical plane: (a) top hand , (b) head, (c) lower shoulder and (d) lower hand. 

 As well, from the side view there should a straight line from the top hand, head and hip. The torso rotation, extension of both arms and the forward lean are maximum. 

 The upper arm should be straight but some bend at the elbow is acceptable. The top arm shoulder should be behind the head on the setup. The lower arm is fully extended and is almost locked at the elbow. The lower hand grip should be relaxed and not grip the paddle too hard. The paddles flips forward into the reach position where it is at its highest potential energy level. From this position, the potential energy will be used to submerge the paddles as the stroke progress.   


The catch phase is the most critical to the speed of the boat. The catch is the moment the paddle blade first bites into the water. The top hand is held over the water, then drives down on the paddle with the outside arm relaxed and fully extended.   


Once the paddle is fully submerged or "buried", the next component of the stroke is the pull phase. The buried position is also call the "vertical" position or "90/90" which means fron the front view and side view the paddle is straight up and down or at 90 degrees. The paddles should then pull back directly parallel with the boat. The top hand stabilizes the paddle as the bottom arm and back muscles pull back. To use the back muscles effectively, the paddler sits up while pulling and continues to drive the paddle downward with the top hand. 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.    


Conventional paddling theory says that the exit of the paddle should occur by the time it gets to the hip. In 2001, the Canadian National Teams introduced a new stroke that included an exit that was well past the hip. The bottom hand pulled back until it was at the hip but the blade tip was a good foot behind. The theory behind this new stroke is that the "pull phase" needs to be longer because of the relatively heavy boats compared to flatwater boats. The longer pull phase also produces the "glide" which seems to be the key to boat speed.     


This part of the stroke is the rest phase when the muscles are not working as hard; recovery speed plays a large role in determining the stroke rate. During recovery, the torso starts rotating and leaning forward to setup for another cycle of the stroke. 


The boat crew is broken into three sections, the front which is the first six paddlers, the engine room which is the middle eight paddlers and the back which is last six paddlers. Weight of the paddlers must be taken into consideration when setting up the boat. Any serious weight distribution problems will adversely affect how the boat tracks for steering. The biggest paddlers are placed in the middle or engine room and lighter paddlers at the front and back sections.

The front six paddlers set the pace and should be reserved for paddlers with good long paddling strokes. The rest of the boat needs something visual to follow. The rest of the boat will have short choppy stroke if the front has short choppy strokes.

The middle eight or the "engine room" is usually reserved for the heavier, stronger paddlers. During the middle of the race the engine room dictates the pace. The stroke rate of the crew is usually determine by the engine room. The stroke rate is not too fast as long as the big engine room paddlers can twist and reach. Once the engine room paddlers start shortening up on their stroke, you know the pace is getting too fast.

The back six paddlers of the boat should have the strongest people in the boat. It is not uncommon for a novice crew to setup the boat with weaker paddlers who get out of stroke. For an intermediate crew or an advanced crew this would be a missed opportunity. A series which is a sequence of more powerful strokes meant to advance the boat and is initiated by the back six paddlers and ripples to the front of the boat.

Depending which section the paddler is sitting in, the water reacts differently in each section. At the front, the water is dead and more difficult to pull the paddle through. Moving to the center of the boat where the engine room is, the water rushes by quicker. The water is fastest at the back of the boat. What does this do to the timing of the strokes? Since the water is faster in the middle and back of the boat, paddles will "fly" back quicker. Middle paddlers will tend to rush their exits relative to the front paddlers. Front paddlers will need to have long strokes (up front) and be quick on the exits because of this natural tendency of paddlers behind them to rush. In the back because of the even faster water, paddlers will have a tendency to pause at the end of their strokes. These back of the boat paddlers need to long in their strokes and to drive the paddle in the water even harder to slow down the paddle and to be effective. That is why they say that the strongest paddlers should be in the back of the boat.

Side to side and front to back weight distribution must be taken into consideration when setting up the boat. The steersperson must have the knowledge of how to move paddlers around to improve the balance of the boat. Having the boat off balance can seriously affect how the boat tracks. The steersperson is 100% responsible for the safety of the crew. The steersperson has the best view of any obstructions on the water and must make the required commands to the crew to manoeuver the boat. In race situations the steersperson must also be able to read wind and be knowledgeable of how the boat reacts in certain conditions. It is not good enough that the steersperson can just keep the boat straight, he or she must be able to bring the boat to the line in whatever wind conditions and make the manoeuvers or commands to hold the boat on the line.



Racing can be broken down in to smaller elements: pre-race, start, middle, finish, post-race. 

Pre-Race- Includes on-land stretches, positioning of paddlers in boat, warm-up to the start line that should include one practice start. 

Start Sequence - The start that is taught to novice teams is "5 and 10" meaning five deep long strokes to get the boat moving from a stationary position followed by 10 sprint strokes that accelerate the boat to top speed. A series of transition strokes follow to bring the stroke rate down to allow the stronger and longer "power strokes". 

Middle - For the purpose of advancing race positions, teams often include one or more "series". A series is a set 10 or more strokes that are harder and sometimes faster to help the boat speed up. Please note that the paddlers must still hit in-stroke, must not shorten up on the stroke reach for a series to be effective. 

Finish - The last 20-30 strokes on a race has its own elements. At this point in the race the objective is to bring the boat up in speed for that last finishing kick. It is similar to the "10" strokes of the start. The paddlers are leaning forward and using their arms only to accelerate the boat. Paddling with arms is quicker than paddling using your back although paddling with the back is much more powerful. 

Post-Race - Analyse what went right, what went wrong. Make the adjustments for the next race. 


KEEP A TRAINING LOG: Many competitive paddlers have a detailed training log which records their training activities: on-water, weight training, pool etc. Usually a little booklet showing the date, work-out (ex: 3 sets x 1.5 km paddling @ 60%, 2 min rest between), how they felt about it. Body weight and basal or morning heart rate is also sometimes included. Training logs will help you in the long term. If you have a bad racing year, you can look back at previous years logs and find out how hard you trained and felt in previous years. Good paddling years are usually a result of how well you have trained.

Coaches should also keep a log the team training from year to year. You can draw from this data base of work-outs each year and adjust accordingly. As a former paddler as well as a coach, I know how hard I can push the training by looking at my previous training logs. If I have done the work-outs myself I know other people can also do the work-out. The amount of training a team does will determine how well a team will perform in races. Remember, practice makes perfect.

OVERTRAINING: Overtraining can result in sudden loss in body weight and increase in morning heart rate. Training becomes flat. Body becomes susceptible to injury and illness. Good habit of getting into is checking your heart rate before getting out of bed in the morning. If the heart rate suddenly goes up more than six beats over the usual rate, overtraining has probably taken place. The body has been overloaded and the heart is working extra hard to compensate. Reduction in overall activities and more recovery time may be necessary.

8/ Steering a dragon boat

A trained steerer is an important part of any crew. The steerer is responsible for crew safety on the water and is important to the success of a winning team. A good steerer will have knowledge of boat commands, effects of wind and water conditions. As well, this person will develope instincts of boat balance and create an environment of confidence within the boat. Written information regarding steering is helpful but nothing replaces hours of steering in a boat in various weather and water conditions.

A steering clinic at the Stratford Dragon Boat Club will have a crew of about 12 to 14 paddlers. Usually these paddlers are other steers that are taking part in the clinic. With this many paddlers in a boat, the novice steer will have at least a good "feel" of how the boat moves. Too few paddlers in a boat will allow for easy correction but with no sense of the power and weight of a full boat. Too many paddlers and the novice steer will be overpowered and be unable to correct the boat in the intended path. The "lighter" 12-14 paddlers in a boat allows the steerer to manouver the boat easier than a full boat.

Different boats models because of their hull shapes track different than other boats. Some boats are easier to "lose" than others but will be easier to "correct" while other boat hulls track or stay straighter longer but when they do go out of position they are tougher to correct.

The first thing we teach at a clinic is for a steerer to "spin the boat". First spin the boat clock wise a full 360 degrees and then counter clockwise. This type of manouver is done when the boat is stationary or moving very slowly. The steering oar or sweep is always located at the left side of a dragon boat and usually right behind the tenth paddling row. Key points to remember: for a counter-clockwise spin, the steering oar starts close to the tail of the boat and sweeps out away from the boat (I refer to this a "pry"). For a clockwise spin, the steering oar starts away from the boat to the left and pulls water towards the boat (I refer to this motion as "draw"). For this manouver, the steering oar needs to be pushed down through the "ring" attached to the boat otherwise the handle of the oar will hit the last paddler on the left. The deeper the steering oar is in the water, the more resistance on the blade.

Next, the steerer will be allowed to take control of the boat while half the crew is paddling. Once the steerer gets somewhat of a feel for keeping the boat straight, the rest of the crew can join in.

Key Points:
1/ foot stance - at least shoulder width apart or more. I advocate right foot forward and left foot back as a this give you front to back stablility and feet wide side to side gives left/right stability. Try to keep the legs relaxed as you try to get your "boat balance" or "sea legs".

2/ hand positions - right hand on the "T-handle" at the top and left hand about waist level around mid-shaft.

3/ standup straight or at least comfortably - many novices will crouch down because they worry about losing balance and/or falling out. Slight bend at the knees help absorb any bounce caused by he boat surging on every paddler stroke.

Neutral Position - there is an angle of the steering oar blade that has equal water pressure on both planes of the blade while the boat is moving. No matter how far the top handle of the steering oar is away from the steer, there is a "neutral" blade position or angle. This must be found by turning the "T-handle" on the steering oar. This is the position that will keep the boat straight.

3 Steering Methods

Push and Pull - from the neutral position, if the boat needs to go left, the top part of the steering oar at the t-handle is pulled towards the steerer. If the boat needs to go right, the top part of the steering oar is pushed out. Often used for hard turns and emergency situations

Handle Rotation - from the neutral position, if the boat needs to go left, the top part of the "T-handle" needs to rotate away from the steerer (or rotate counter clockwise to around 10 or 11 o'clock from the back view). If the boat needs to go right, the top part of the "T-handle" needs to rotate towards the steerer (around 1 or 2 o'clock). Often used for fine adjustments and minimizing steering oar resistance. Ideal for races.

Combination of Push/Pull and Handle Rotation - this is probably the most common although either of the other two can be used exclusively during race situations. You do however need to incorporate both to make maximum left or right turns as in the case of 2k race left turns.

Technical Explanation - The steering oar mounted on the left side of the boat and the blade glides through the water. For all intents and purposes, the plane of the blade facing the steerer is the "inside of the blade" (or right plane of the steering oar) and the portion facing away from the steerer is the "outside of the blade" (or left plane of steering oar). Any water pressure on the "inside of the blade" causes the tail of the boat tail to shift left and therefore the boat will go right. Think of an imaginary post go up and down the exact centre of the boat between seat benches 5 and 6. This is where the boat pivots. If the boat tail is pushed to the right, the head of the boat is rotated left and the boat travels that direction and visa versa to turn right. This is done by either pushing the handle out and/or turning the top of the "T-handle" towards the steer. Visa versa for the left turns. Which ever side of the blade catches the water pressure is the same direction the boat will turn towards.

Race Situations

It is recommended that a steerer have at least 20 hours of practices before attempting to steer at a competition. During competition and especially for start situations, it is up to the steerer to get the boat on the starting line with minimal energy output from the crew. To be avoided is excessive energy sapping "draw" strokes to bring the boat back into the centre of the lane or backing up at the start line. It is recommended that the boat approaches the start line with the other teams. Setting on the start line too early may cause your boat to drift out of position resulting in necessary draw strokes or having the Starter shoot the gun right after he asks you to back up the boat. Arriving too late on the start line line may have you well behind the line when the starter shoots his gun. A cross-wind further emphasizes the importance of approaching the start line together with the other teams. On a left-right cross wind, the boat should be approaching on the left side of the lane because the wind will blow the boat to the centre of the lane. It will take experience to be able to set the boat in the middle of the lane on a windy day. Of course as more and more event have "held starts", some of the race start antics by teams and weather related problems will be eliminated.

Steering Tricks of the Trade:

1/ Emergency corrections - it is easiest to make the boat respond when the crew has their paddles out of the water. "Pump", force, lean or pull on the steering oar when the crew has their paddles in the "up-stroke".

2/ If at the start line the boat drifts towards a buoy and the gun goes off, aim the centre of the boat to go directly over the buoy. This prevent paddlers from adjusting their stroke or losing strokes to avoid buoys.

3/ If your team is late getting to the start line, go straight down the middle of the race course. They can't start the race if you are on the race course.

4/ "Go on the Smoking Gun" - Although it is more common now to use an electronic horn for start but if it is a gun or a start cannon, go when you see the smoke. Sound travels slower than light. You can see the smoke faster than you can hear it. This is especially helpful if you are in the lane farthest away from the starter.

5/ Square up the hips - Most steerers are rotated slightly to the left side of the boat. For most situations I advocate facing to the front with hips squared (still right foot forward and legs apart side to side). This position closes the distance from steering shaft to the side of your hip. If the steering oar is again the side of your hip, you can lean left which will make it much easier to make right turns.

6/ Foot pressure - To make left turns you need to apply more pressure to the left side of the boat with your left foot. Shift your weight back on to your left foot to do this and lean to the right. For right turns lean forward towards the left across from right foot and push the steering oar out to the left. You will feel the pressure on your right foot. To summarize - pressure on left foot (kept close to the left side) to make left turns, pressure on right foot (right foot shifted to the right side) for right turns.

7/ 3 points of contact - Bend the left knee and angle it towards the side of the boat until it touches to give another point of contact besides your left and right foot.

Learning to steer comes with practice. At some point you should be able to lean on the oar with full weight or lean backwards and pulling on the oar with full weight. Also, for race situations you will be able to steer with a "light touch" to have the least amount of water resistance on the blade. It is up to the paddlers to win the race but it is the steerer who must create the environment for this to happen.

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