A dragon boat is a very long and narrow human-powered boat used in the team paddling sport or dragon boat racing which originated in China .
For racing events, dragon boats are always rigged with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails and are required to carry a large drum aboard. At other times the decorative regalia is usually removed, although the drum often remains aboard for training purposes.
Dragon boat races are traditionally held to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan , making dragonboating the only sport to be celebrated as a national holiday. The Chinese calendar date is 5/5 which usually corresponds to a date in June.
From the Midwest Dragon Boat Site
The origin of dragon boat racing can be traced to events that happened in southern China over 2,000 years ago. Originally, boats adorned with dragon heads were part of a fertility rite as a way to encourage plentiful rains and a good harvest.
Dragon boat racing within the context of a festival became much more important in Chinese culture with the tragic events surrounding Qu Yuan (pronounced Chu Yuan) around 277 B.C. Qu was a senior minister, diplomat, and poet in the Ch’u feudal kingdom. As a man of integrity and wisdom, he gave truthful advice to the king, advice that angered his political rivals. These rivals persuaded the king to banish Qu Yuan. Despondent over his exile and the subsequent decline of the government, Qu put stones in his pocket and drowned himself in the Mi Lo river. When local fishermen raced out to rescue him, they beat their drums and splashed with their paddles to scare the fish and water dragons away from Qu Yuan’s body. They also threw rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves into the water, hoping that the fish would eat the dumplings and leave the body alone.
To commemorate their beloved Qu Yuan, the people of southern China staged dragon boat races to remember the day when they raced into the river in an attempt to save him. The dragon boat races, and the serving of rice dumplings or rice cakes, became an annual event on the fifth day of the fifth month, believed to be the day that Qu Yuan drowned in the Mi Lo river.
What is most exciting is the growth of the sport at the grassroots level. Dragon Boat Racing is great fun for anyone, young or old. Although most international crews are either all male or female, national and regional events attract primarily mixed teams from corporations, public service groups, clubs sponsored by small businesses, high schools, and colleges and universities.
The boats are 42′ in length, 4′ wide and seat 18 paddlers in 9 rows. A drummer sits facing the crew elevated in the bow, and a steersperson stands on a raised platform in the stern to guide the boat with a 10′ oar.
Typically 4-6 teams race at a time down a standard 500m or 250m course in a straight line. At some festivals a 1000m course is also used. Teams race against the clock, placing themselves in a division with other teams of their caliber, and eventually vying for a divisional championship!