Dragon Boat Racing in South Africa

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Dragon Boating was introduced to South Africa in 1992 when two beautiful flag-catching dragon boats were presented to Cape Town by our sister city I'lan County, Taiwan. To celebrate this, a group of canoeists and lifesavers raced and won a best of three against the visiting Taiwanese Navy fleet who had delivered the boats to South Africa.

After this not much happened until 1995 when the City of Cape Town, custodians of the boats, approached a local promotions company. The company showed no interest in dragonboating but Nicola Osse who worked in Old Mutual's marketing department was fascinated. She formed her own company DBSA, took the necessary IDBF exams and set about taking a team to the 1995 Hong Kong International and the First World Championships in Yue Yang in China. This was followed by the 1st Cape Town International, with seven teams in the international section (Britain's Royal Raspberries and Germany's Holstein Hamburg, the newly formed Cape Town Paddlesnappers and Pirates teams, a team of top canoeists, the Portuguese Youth League and an SA Navy team). There were also four corporate teams. All racing was done using the wooden flag-catching boats but without the flag-catching finishes.

The following year six fibreglass racing dragon boats (financed by Old Mutual) were launched at the V&A just in time for the 2nd Cape Town Dragon Boat Racing International in November 1996. Amongst our visitors this year was a team of Royal Marines.

DBSA continued to organise annual Cape Town Internationals until 2004 (when Nicola immigrated to Canada), with the number of teams in both the International and the Corporate sections growing exponentially. Teams from Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand, United States and Germany became regular visitors and for the 2004 CCWC (also organised by DBSA) these countries were joined by teams from Russia, Canada, Holland, Switzerland and Australia.

Including corporates in Internationals not only helped to finance the events, but happily several of the Corporate crews decided to take it up as a regular sport and form their own clubs. The first of these was Safmarine team who in 1998 became the Safdragons (now Mujaji) while the German School team, DSK Drachenschweine (now Tsunami Dragons), has been a club challenge to all South African adult teams since 2003.

In 2003, the Western Cape Dragon Boat Association (WCDBA) was given custodianship of the City's two wooden flag-catchers and in 2006 took custodian of two more, generously donated by the Taiwanese community   (pictures of the launching ceremony).
Regular league racing was instituted in 2006 using these flag catchers. They are not only very beautiful boats, but the final act of the flag-catchers leaping up over the dragon's head and stretching as far as they can to catch the flag introduces an extra element of drama.

dsk vs paddlesnappers

The harsh African sun and stormy Cape winters takes their toll on these lovely boats. WCDBA had the older pair restored by the Catholic Salesian Institute whose "Learn to Live" outreach project teaches practical life skills to black street kids. Under the expert guidance of master-craftsman Randolph Abrahams, the youngsters did a superb job of restoring the boats to their original beauty.

Up till 2009, only four Cape clubs owned their own boats. After a frustrating saga stretching from 2006 to 2009, the WCDBA joyfully launched a fleet of new fibreglass boats in February. These boats are special because not only have they allowed the sport to blossom with astonishing rapidity, but also they were built by another unique institution, the Whisper Boat Building Academy for deaf black youngsters in Khayelitsha.

A very special team in Cape Town is the amaBele Belles; Africa's first breast cancer survivor team. A promise made in Rome 2002 to Australia's Dragon's Abreast was finally realised in early May, 2006. The Belles trained stoically throughout our southern winter and competed very successfully at the first BCS World Championship in Singapore. Their trophy and medals were however just a symbol of their inner triumph over cancer and an affirmation of their joy in life. Singapore was a very special experience for all of us who took part.

At regattas, Cape Town Paddling Club Mujaji always gets given a little extra time to embark as one of their most committed, determined paddlers is Heidi Vollmer. When she was 18, Heidi completely broke her back (at t5) in a car accident on the dunes of the Namib. She is totally paralysed and without sensation from just below shoulder-level. Shonaquip, a local company who specialize in aids for the physically handicapped, have built her a supportive paddling chair that holds her upright with a quick-release velcro strap. This slots into Mujaji's boat in place of the back seat. Olivia, Heidi's beautiful Golden Retriever Service Dog is always at her side, ready to act as life-saver ... and a magnet for photographers!

Other places in South Africa with dragon boat racing are the Johannesburg area of Gauteng (started in 1999), Parys in the Free State (started 2004) and Durban in Natal (started 2009). The Johannesburg paddlers are fortunate to have had the passionate involvement of two influential members of the Gauteng Taiwanese community, Vincent Lin and Gino Feng. Between the efforts of these two men, the Gauteng fleet of Taiwanese and Chinese flag-catching boats has grown to the extent that GBDA have been able to lend boats to Parys and Durban and so spread the sport to two other provinces. Vincent and Gino have also been taking Gauteng teams to compete in the annual Taiwanese festival for several years. Tragically, South African dragon boating lost Gino in 2007. He died in his home, defending his family against armed robbers. We all miss him.

Both WCDBA and GDBA focus on developing the sport at the junior level. Not only are they the paddlers of the future, but getting kids into teams gets them away from the gang-and-drug culture and is it gratifying to hear the team managers' stories of boys who "started paddling four months ago and have been off drugs since".

There is nothing like the promise of an overseas competition to get paddlers paddling throughout our southern winter. South African teams have participated in Internationals and World Championships in Hong Kong, Macau, Nottingham, Rome, Poznan, Prague, Singapore, Penang, Taipei and in numerous cities in China (including YueYuan, Beijing, Huangzhou, Xaimen, Miluo, Nanning, Zhaoqing, Zhanjiang, Shauguan and Guangzhou), and fun events such as the Venetian Vogalonga and the first crossing to Robben Island.

Participants representing RSA abroad

Dragon boat racing in the West
  • 1976 First international dragon boat races were organised in Hong Kong.
  • 1980 HKTA sent three Dragon Boats to London.
  • 1981 First formal Dragon Boat Races in Great Britain.
  • 1987 British Dragon Boat association formed
  • 1990 European Dragon Boat Federation formed
  • 1991 International Dragon Boat Federation formed
  • 1992 Asian Dragon Boat Federation formed
  • 1992 two Taiwanese wooden flag-catching boats given to the city of Cape Town
  • 1995 First IDBF World Championships for dragon boat racing as a modern sport,
            Yue Yang China. (South Africa participated)
  • 1995 Paddlesnappers, the first dragonboat club in Africa formed in Cape Town
  • 1996 First IDBF Club Crew World Championships (in Canada)
  • 1996 Don McKenzie launched the 1st Breast Cancer Survivor team, Abreast In A Boat
  • 2006 amaBele Belles, the first BCS team in Africa, launced on 6th April 2006
  • 2006 September/October The 1st BCS World Championships.

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