Dragon boat participants should take a "safety first" policy. Always wear properly fitting and Canadian approved pfd's or life jackets. Whether you are a recreational paddler or a seasoned competitor, safety issues must be recognized. As with all boating and water activities, have respect for the water. There have been some preventable dragon boat related deaths over the last couple of years. Some of these tragedies have included life guards and paramedics who were strong swimmers. Life jackets or pfd's could have prevented many of these deaths. All dragon boat events supply life jackets. The majority of the dragon boat festivals in Canada have now adopted mandatory life jacket / pfd wearing while racing.
It is the high number of participants in a dragon boat that increases the difficulty in rescue operations. Two dragon boats crashing together in a race potentially has 44 participants in the water. First of all, there will be mass confusion trying to account for everyone in the water. Secondly, there usually aren't enough rescue boats to efficiently pick up 44 people in the water. The risk is compounded if the water is extremely cold and if the participants are not wearing life jackets or pfd's. If you have every been in a boat capsizing you will understand the dangers to the participants. This is one steerer's experience of a boat capsize full of high school kids:
".......... The right side of the boat took on water because of the paddlers shifting their weight around. The boat rolls to the right as the right side paddlers go under water. The left side paddlers fall on top of the right paddlers and they too disappear under the water. The last thing I see before I go crashing into the water is the left gunwale come crashing down on the water as the boat finishes its roll. For a short moment everyone is under water and the boat is upside down. For a few seconds we didn't know if anyone was under the boat. Luckily no one was hurt and everyone was accounted for. The potential for someone to bang their head on the boat or paddle or have some other injury was there........."
1/ Have a safety plan
Every team should adopt a safety plan. Most teams use the "buddy" system. Each paddler is responsible for the paddler beside them if the boat ever goes into the water. Make sure that someone is responsible for the drummer and steersperson. Usually the two paddlers closest to the steerer and drummer are responsible for each other. At the Stratford Dragon Boat Club, it is the steerer or the drummer who will initiates the "buddy" system after the boat is loaded by asking the crew to look at the person beside them so they know who they are responsible in case of a capsize. If in the water, do a head count and make sure everyone is accounted for. Assist those who are injured or are having difficulties in the water. Paddlers should stay with the boat and not try to swim to shore. Wait until help comes.
2/ Use common sense
Don't paddle in lightning or extremely high winds. Know the water you are paddling in. Do not paddle past dusk. Follow the Coast Guard rules - safety whistles, bailers, safety rope. The Canadian Coast Guard recommends following a
"5 Step Checklist" :
1/ Check weather and water conditions and restrictions.
2/ File a "Sail Plan" or our case a "Paddling Plan" with a responsible person.
3/ Is vessel in good working order? Check operational equipment.
4/ Check inventory of safety equipment and first aid kit.
5/ Ensure all boaters are wearing properly fitting and Canadian-Approved PFD's.
COLD WATER IMMERSION SHOCK
In Canada, there is an extra water danger because of the colder climate. "Cold water immersion shock" occurs when a person falls into very cold water. What occurs is a gasp reflex response or the involuntary inhaling of the lungs. If your head is in the water you could take water into your lungs and drown! Water temperature generally lags behind the air temperature by about a month's time. In other words if the air temperature in May is starting to get warm, the water will take a good month to warm up. The same happens in the fall - as the air temperature starts to get cool in October, the water stays warm for about 3-4 weeks. The Stratford Dragon Boat Club strictly enforces a policy of wearing cold water protective clothing. The minimum clothing protection that a paddler should have for the months of April and May is a 3 mil neophrene vest which is basically a wetsuit that only protects the torso area. Of course a full wetsuit is ideal and recommended as long as it does not restrict mobility.
It is hoped that there will be some kind of steerer certification or guidelines created nationally. Here are some guidelines recommended by the Stratford Dragon Boat Club. For the purpose of racing, every steerer should have at least 20 hours of steering practice before being allowed to steer for a race. Each steerer should go through a clinic or course teaching the fundamentals of steering. We also recommend a written test to demonstrate knowledge of boat commands, balancing the boat, water conditions, capsize and emergency procedures. As well there should be a practical test to show proficiency in various water conditions and the ability to set the boat on the start line with a full crew. Ultimately, it is the steerer's full responsibility to ensure the safety of the paddlers on the boat. Many of the boat collisions in the past could have been prevented with a proficient steerer. To the event organizers we recommend minimum 12 metre width lanes that would allow any steerer losing control more time to avoid collisions with other boats. The Stratford Dragon Boat Club runs one to two steering courses throughout the season. Check out the "Services" page for the next course date.