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Dragon boat racing is Australia's fastest-growing water sport — and it's making a splash in Ballarat

ABC Grandstand logoABC Grandstand 21/11/2021
The sound of a drum echoed across Lake Wendouree as the dragon boat races took off. (ABC Ballarat: Rosanne Maloney) © Provided by ABC Grandstand The sound of a drum echoed across Lake Wendouree as the dragon boat races took off. (ABC Ballarat: Rosanne Maloney)

With the bang of a drum, Ballarat's dragon boat racing regatta kicked off on Sunday morning, as teams from across the state took turns to race down Lake Wendouree.

The event, supported by Ballarat City Council, saw groups race in boats with golden dragon heads and tails, sometimes scales, and a large drum.

It is the first major sporting event to be held in Ballarat in months due to the pandemic, with guests enjoying their first weekend under the state's eased restrictions.

For the racing teams, it is also the first time in a while they have been able to get in the water and compete.

Ballarat Golden Dragons coach and founder Magie Guy said, with all the disruptions over the past two years, it is a relief to be back on the water.

"COVID has served a bit of a halt to a lot of [racing] because clubs haven't been able to train," she said.

"So, this regatta is really exciting because we haven't been able to get together for so long."

An ancient practice

Dragon Boat racing is one of the fastest growing water sports in Australia, but its origins date back more than 2,000 years.

It has been a major part of Chinese culture, with the races traditionally taking place on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month.

The dragon itself — or the "loong" — has a special place in Chinese culture of riding the clouds in the sky and commanding the wind, mist and rain.

Legend has it that the sport originated in China after poet and statesman Qu Yuan threw himself into the Mi Lo River to protest the corrupt political power at the time.

It is said that when word was shared of his death, local fishermen raced out in their boats to be the first to recover Qu Yuan's body — so the racing of dragon boats began.

The boats themselves symbolise the dragon, with the paddles representing the claws and the drum representing the beating heart.

Dragon Boat Victoria chief executive Craig Ryan said in the modern day, dragon boat racing attracts a diverse crowd, with participation being around 60 per cent female and an average age of 49.

"You can be as young as 10 or you can be as old as 83 ... and that's certainly our oldest paddler," Mr Ryan said.

Racing to raise awareness

There are now three dragon boat racing teams in Ballarat, one of which is bringing breast cancer awareness to the game.

Dragons Abreast has teams all around the state and is made up of survivors and their friends and family hoping to raise awareness of breast cancer.

Helen Dorning, a paddler with the club, says the sport is about more than just competing.

"I'm a breast cancer survivor. I've been diagnosed for 20 years, so it's pretty awesome that I'm still upright and smiling and it's a gorgeous day," Ms Dorning said.

"[Dragon boating] is a fabulous thing you can do to help recover, [find] comrades, [improve] fitness and just to enjoy life because having a diagnosis of breast cancer is pretty traumatic."

After the 350 paddlers finished competing in the 36 races in Ballarat, the day ended with awards presented by Ballarat Mayor Daniel Maloney.

"We'd like to make this an annual event for everyone to come watch, but also for dragon boaters all around Victoria," Mr Ryan said.

"It's a great event, great location and we'll be back next year."

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