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Kirby's Tips on Dragon Boat Paddling Technique

Kirby Mark, who has been paddling with us for a few years, has compiled this guide to the dragon boat stroke.  This article has a lot of useful pics and pointers to improve your technique.  Big thanks to Kirby for assembling all of this information!

Most of the pics are from Kirby's team in Vancouver, where it takes a special kind of toughness to paddle in water that never gets above 8°.

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Kirby Mark

I have found some interesting dragon boat related websites that I would like to share: (basic paddling technique)

On this site, there is a link to the Hong Kong Club paddling manual which might be useful for some of the newer paddlers. In general the technique described in the HK Club manual is a very good starting point, even for those with experience. There are also some links to coaching info from the False Creek Racing Canoe Club which is the biggest club in Vancouver and home of the best women's team in the world (I believe my style most closely follows the False Creek stroke). (more advanced techniques)

Blog written by Steve Giles, a former Canadian Olympic athlete. Advanced technique but VERY interesting to read, especially his posts on catch, exit, and rotation

I have summarized some notes and attached some photos for clarification. These are my personal notes that I
have picked up over the years and they are meant to supplement the general stroke that is described in the links above. I have not gone into full detail and description on each step; rather my points are only to highlight the points which I feel are important or not mentioned in the available training manuals.

- Keep the paddle vertical when the blade is in the water (top hand over bottom hand)
- All body movements are in a general forward movement, not off to a slight angle to the side
- Minimize movement when in the boat, any rocking of the boat will reduce the glide
- Keep the paddle as close to the gunwale (side of the boat) at all times, during the stroke and also during the
- Try to recover with the blade as close to the water as possible, to reduce any wastage in extra movement
- Keep your head up while paddling, to be able to keep time with the lead stroke plus to keep your airways open for breathing
- Bottom hand should be gripping around 4" up from where the shaft meets the blade (I see a lot of people holding the paddle too close to the blade - personally I tape my paddle to mark the place where my hand should be); if you hold too near the blade, it will limit how far you can reach
- Paddle length: all the men should be using at least 49"; most of the women should be using 48-49"

- Rotation starts from the (1) hips, (2) lower back, (3) upper back, (4) shoulders, (5) extend arms
- To maximize reach and extension, concentrate on bringing your outside arm parallel to the water before the catch and extend the bottom arm straight (see photos)
- For me, good rotation means that you will put most of your weight on your outside butt-cheek with the other side slightly lifted off the bench
- I still like to keep my outside leg forwards, and I find that I put a lot of weight on my leg as well during the rotation (compression), such that when I catch and pull I am able to use my leg to push off for extra power (somewhat more advanced technique, took a good couple of years to start using my legs more - this is where OC practice can really help as well)
- Lean forwards at all times, it really helps with to get more length on the stroke - also if the person sitting in front of you is not leaning, it will shorten the stroke of the person behind. It is important that everyone leans and keeps leaning throughout the race/practice. Very tiring to those not used to it, but it gets better over the course of a month or two with regular practice
- Think about leaning and reaching and extending out slightly more than what feels comfortable – the “regular”
stroke for most people probably can be optimized with a little extra reach to add additional length to the stroke


- Plant your paddle into the water before you start to pull
- The catch should be silent without any splashing (otherwise that means you are starting to pull before a full catch)
- Keep the stroke up-front, and do not pull back too far


- Keep your core tight as most of the work during the pull is coming from your back and legs (not from the arms)
- Lock your bottom arm while pulling
- Push with your leg for extra power
- Think of the pull as if you are pulling yourself and the boat up to the paddle, rather than pushing the paddle into the water

- Exit when the blade reaches your mid thigh as pulling back too far will create drag
- Another technique to consider is to exit once your top hand reaches your shoulder level
- Try to recover without “flaring” the paddle too much to the side – keep the motion economical and if possible in the forward direction only
- As you exit the water, you can do a slight inwards twist with your wrists to break the pressure of the water against the blade of the paddle to aid the exit motion

Figure 1: Sprint Canoe (C-1) Paddling Technique

OBSERVATION: This technique is very similar to dragon boat

Figure 2: Full Extension before the Catch (photo courtesy of

OBSERVATION: Notice how the people in the back of the boat are not leaning as much, and as a result the reach and rotation is getting worse starting from around the 5th-6th row. The length of the stroke is much shorter in the back of the boat.

Figure 3: Close up of Full Extension before the Catch (photo courtesy of

OBSERVATION: Look at Jeff (black sleeveless top) – his stroke is effortless with rotation such that his full back can be seen from the viewpoint in this photo. His bottom hand is reaching past the armpit of the paddler in front of him, even though she is also leaning forwards.

Figure 4: Catch before Pull

OBSERVATION: Bottom arm is locked and fairly straight. (photo courtesy of

Figure 5: Exit Stroke at Mid-Thigh (Top Hand at Shoulder Level) (photo courtesy of

OBSERVATIONS: Exit should happen when the paddle is at mid-thigh. One technique some people use is to exit when your top hand gets to your shoulder level (see photo).

Figure 6: Close-Up during Catch (photo courtesy of

OBSERVATIONS: Top arm angle around 135 degrees, head is up and looking forwards, and paddle is vertical.

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