Early March and the dragon boat season is under way. Paddlers line up on the beach at Stanley from 6am each day of the week. Bleary, cold and in the early part of the season, still dark. Most of us wear Lycra bike shorts, swimming suits and aqua shoes. Gloves are mandatory as far as I am concerned, as is a baseball hat since it stops the spray getting into your eyes. I also wear a Lycra T shirt which stops you feeling as cold because it dries quickly. Normal shirts become sodden and cold very quickly.

The boat is beautiful. Made of polished wood and very long (about 10 metres). It is also quite narrow. We all chipped in and bought from some fisherman and then paid for it to be restored. It holds around 20 people plus a coach and an oarsman who steers the boat although we never get that many in it as the boat becomes too heavy and sits too low in the water.

We usually paddle with around16 women depending on their weight.

When we get in for the first paddle of the season we make sure to stagger experienced and inexperienced paddlers all the way down the boat. This way the novice paddlers are sitting behind someone who is more experienced. It is so much easier to pick it up when you have someone good in front of you or beside you. You start to feel the rhythm of the stroke.

Depending on what side of the boat you are on, you jam one leg into a position which acts as a kind of chock for you to pull against and then you turn your body towards the middle of the boat. You inner arm is high and straight. You then lean forward as far as you can.

The coach starts to call out " On three.. three..two..one and row"

We pull away from the beach is a slow circle and after a few shuddering moments we began to move in time. The boat moves like a caterpillar. Each side must move in unison if we are to move at all - otherwise paddles clash and the boat jerks back and forwards.

The person standing at the front yells at us to "Reach! Reach!!!"

Dragon boating is all about using your back muscles to lean as far as you can forward and then with a twisting movement the oar is pulled through the water at an almost vertical angle. It is a short sharp pull and very effective. You can feel the power as the boat picks up speed and the rhythm becomes hypnotising.

It is very quiet, the water is like glass and all you can hear is the breathing of the people behind you and around you as they concentrate on their stroke.

"Girl on the left, lift your paddle higher. Your inner arm should be UP!

"Fourth on the right. You are out of time. Swap with the person behind you as you are putting the back half of the boat off its stroke".

The coach yells out instructions.

A bit of jostling and juggling as places are found.

I love it.

I have been paddling for five years and captained for three. As a team we always placed well it the races and were normally in the top three out of all the teams that raced at the Stanley Dragon Boat festival, the main expatriate festival in Hong Kong. We always won a trophy of some sort, as did our men's team.

Basically we would train for about a 3-4 month period. We would start off slowly to get people interested and capable and then we would increase our training to about 5 times a week. Often the women would row with the men's team, which made for a different session. The men tended to stroke slower and pull harder.

At the end of each season we all had fabulous biceps and leaner bodies although one of our sponsors provided us with free chicken wings and appetisers after each training session on the weekend so it was a very social way to enjoy a sporting activity. A couple of hours in the sunshine on a Saturday afternoon and then a couple of hours hanging around Stanley drinking, chatting end enjoying delicious food.

Each race day - the date of the Tuen Ng festival, which forms the origin of the races - depends on the lunar calendar. It usually falls some time in June and each year one of the older paddlers would organise an early session and tell the story of the Tuen Ng festival. It became something of a tradition to listen to Stuart talk about the meaning of it all.

We would stand in a circle with our arms linked around each other while he told us about the poet, Chu Yuan who was loved and admired by the people of China. He was unjustly accused of treason (some say the government was corrupt and engaged in acts of bribery). Different stories abound. One says he threw himself into the seas in protest, another says he tried to escape and hide in the river. Fisherman tied to save him and thrashed the water with their oars as well as throwing in special dumplings to discourage the fish from eating his body.

During the last week before the race, a dragon's head and tail is attached to the boat and, as a final step, the dragons' eyes are dotted. If your head or tail falls off you cannot race until the repairs are made. And, behind the head at the front of the boat a drummer sits high on the boat with a large drum beating out a thudding and resounding beat.

I can still close my eyes and hear it.

The beach would be marked off and the evening before hundreds of junks would make their way to Stanley. These junks lined up each side of the course and the actual race - 8 boats per heat - would be between all of these junks back to the beach. It was a straight line and depending on the strength of the stroke the distance varied from about 150-200 stokes. Incredibly short, sharp and intense.

Dragon boat season is coming up again. I can't race in Hong Kong but I aim to find somewhere that I can do it again.

Those cool mornings on the beach and the thrill of the drumbeat are worth experiencing again.

Amanda O hasn't been in a dragon boat for over a year now but has brought her paddle with her in case she finds a new team.

Dragon boating. Just one of the things you can experience while living overseas

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Posted 22Jul05