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Oyster Point Dragons
Basic Commands, Paddling Techniques, and Components of a Boat

Basic Commands:

Attention or Attention Please – Command issued by the starter one to five seconds before the start sound (horn) or the command “Go.”  See “Start” below.

Back Paddle – Motion used by paddlers to move the boat backwards.  The back stroke is initiated by reaching slightly behind and pushing the paddle blade forward.

Brace (Brace the Boat) – Command given to stabilize the boat in rough conditions or when people are moving in the boat.  Paddles are extended to the side of the boat and the blade is held on top of the water to create more surface area, thereby absorbing the side to side motions.

Draw (Right Draw or Left Draw) – Command given to move the boat sideways.  Paddlers extend their paddle over the water perpendicular to the boat. On command, the paddlers draw the water under the boat. If it is a right draw command, paddlers on the right-hand side draw, while paddlers on the left brace the boat, and vice versa.

Finish (Finish it Now) – This call lets the paddlers know that they are within a predetermined distance of the finish line. This is the call for paddlers to give everything they’ve got NOW! The ‘Finish it Now’ command is typically followed by the ‘Up Up Up’ command (see below).

Hold or Hold the Boat or Hold Water – Command used to stop the boat.  Paddlers drag their paddle blades through the water creating resistance and slowing the boat.

Hold Hard – Command used to quickly stop the boat.  Instead of dragging the paddles through the water like the hold command, the paddlers apply force against the paddle pushing it forward to make the boat stop.

Let it Ride – Command given to stop paddling and rest the paddle on the gunnel (the top rim of the boat).  The boat will continue to glide after the paddling stops.

Paddles Up – Term used to prepare the team to start paddling.  Paddlers raise their paddles in front of them in the ready position and wait for the ‘Take it Away’ command (see below) to start paddling.

Power 10 – A call for power, typically to call the paddlers to lengthen and deepen their reach, thereby augmenting the power. A call for Power 10 is made several times during a race.  A Power 10 also gets paddlers back in sync with more power. A ‘Power 5’ is often used just before the ‘Finish it Now’ command. If paddlers count out the ‘Power’ calls, it ends with “Ready-and-reach-reach-reach’ to get back into normal pace.

Start – The verbal commands used by the starter to begin a race.  Once the boats are in alignment the starter will utter the following:  “We have alignment” “Paddlers, are you ready?”  “Attention please” then sound a horn or shout out “Go.”  No motion is allowed after the ‘Attention please’ command.

Take it Away – Command used to start paddling during practice or warm up.  Usually preceded by ‘Paddles Up.’  Not used for racing starts.

Up (Up Up Up) – Command for the paddlers to increase the speed/tempo of their stroke. It is very important not to push the team’s stroke rate up to the point it starts to lose sync. Also very important to project your voice to the paddlers at the front of the boat so they bring the stroke rate up or you may find the back of the boat rushing the stroke causing the team to lose sync and power.

Paddling Techniques:

There are six key parts to the dragon boat stroke. When done properly, a boat glides; 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. At all times, the hip must be against the gunnel. The six components are:

Rotation / Twist – 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. You can achieve full rotation by presenting your back to the shore or have your chest face your partner, while facing forward all the time with no head-bobbing. This means that our entire body has to move together in one motion from the hip. Your butt position will be at 70/30, inside cheek/outside cheek. Full rotation allows for maximum reach/extension.

Reach/Extension – The reach position is the end point of the Recovery phase, but is the start of a new stroke cycle. A proper reach position is the foundation of a proper dragon boat stroke and is crucial in maximizing the length of the stroke. The paddle 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 bury the paddle at a positive 45-degree angle.

The outside shoulder should be relaxed and dropped slightly and the outside arm extended straight forward parallel to the water, almost locked at the elbow, while the inside shoulder faces up, and the top hand is over the head.  The torso leans forward for additional extension with the paddle a few inches above the water before driving it into the water. This ‘A-frame’ reach position determines the length of a stroke. A long stroke means more water is pulled.  Both the lower and upper hand-grips should be relaxed, avoiding a ‘death-grip’ but firm enough to ease the catch-and-pull, and upward-and-downward motions, respectively.

Catch – 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 at a 45-degree positive angle, and then fully buried. The top hand is held over the water, then drives vertically down on the paddle with the outside arm relaxed and fully extended. Executing a buried catch before pulling ensures ‘quiet’ paddling with minimum splash.

Pull – Once the paddle is fully submerged or buried, the next component of the stroke is the pull phase. If the torso is ‘rotated’ forward upon the paddle entering the water, the torso will naturally want to ‘de-rotate’ back to a normal position, while still facing forward all the time. The paddle should pull back vertically parallel to the boat alongside the boat curvature and not “fan or flare out” unless the “flip-and-twist’ technique is adopted, which is not covered here. The top hand stabilizes the paddle while the bottom arm and back muscles pull back, elbow-straight all the way until the exit. To use the back muscles effectively, the paddler sits up while pulling straight 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.

Leg power can add another dimension to your stroke. During a race, the outside leg is extended forward and locked under the front seat while the inside leg is locked under your seat or remains flat to maintain stability. During the pull phase, kicking the outside leg can help with adding more power. Paddlers with knee conditions must avoid this technique. During practices, having both legs forward puts less pressure on the knees.

Exit – At the end of the stroke, the paddle should exit the water at mid-thigh. Allowing the stroke to go past mid-thigh results in the paddling blade being at a negative angle, which would slow down the boat. The phrase ‘exit at mid-thigh’ is often used to correct a stroke that is too long. The outside arm, straight thus far, will bend slightly to allow the paddler to clear the water and then it is pushed or snapped or punched forward.

Recovery – 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 back into an A-frame to set up for another cycle of the stroke.

Components of a Boat:

Drummer – The drummer or caller may be considered the ‘heartbeat’ of the dragon boat, and leads the crew throughout a race with the rhythmic beating of a drum to indicate the timing and frequency of paddling strokes; i.e., the cadence, picking up the pace, slowing the rate, etc. The drummer may issue commands to the crew through a combination of hand signals and voice calls, and also generally exhorts the crew to perform at their peak. A drummer is mandatory during racing events, but if s/he is not present during training, it is typical for the steer person to direct the crew.  

A drummer must synchronize the drumming cadence with the strokes of the leading pair of paddlers, rather than the other way around. As a tail wind, head wind, or cross wind, may affect the amount of power needed to move the boat at full speed throughout a race, a drummer should be aware of the relative position of the dragon boat to other boats, and to the finish line, in order to correctly issue commands to the crew as to when to best surge ahead, when to hold steady and when to peak for the finish. An expert drummer can gauge the power of the boat and the paddlers through the sensation of acceleration, deceleration, and inefficiencies transmitted through the hull.

Strokes – This term refers to the leading pairs of paddlers in the first row. The strokes or pacers set the pace for the team. It is critical that all paddlers be synchronized. Each paddler should synchronize with the paddler diagonally in front of him/her. This ensures that the paddling pace is balanced and all energy is spent on moving the boat forward. The direction of the dragon boat is set by the helm, not the paddlers. The lead paddlers are responsible for synchronizing themselves.

Timing Box – Usually the first three rows, with the second and third rows timing off the first row, thereby allowing the rest of the rows to see and synch up.

Engine Room – The rows starting from the fourth to the sixth row represent the engine rows, which generate the extra power while helping the rows at the back with keeping in sync.

White Water – The last four rows are referred to as white water because they are most vulnerable to water splashes. The paddlers in these rows assist the engine room with maintaining and enhancing the power.

Steer Person – The steersperson, known also as the tiller, controls the dragon boat with a steering oar similar in function to a tiller which is mounted at the rear of the boat. The steersperson may work with the drummer to call out commands during a race. The responses of the oar are opposite to the direction the oar takes - if the steersperson pulls the oar right, or into the boat, the boat will turn left, and if s/he pushes out, or left, the boat turns right. The steersperson has the power to override the caller at any time during the race (or the coach during practice) if the safety of the crew is threatened in any way. See OPD’s Safety Manual.

Gunnel / Gunwale – The top rim on each side of the boat.

Dressing the Boat – Mounting the dragon head and tail, and the drum on the boat prior to a race. Boats are usually not dressed up during practices.