The 13th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships

Dianchi Lake, Kunming, Yunnan Province, China – October 18th – 22th, 2017

For centuries, dragon boat racing has been part of everyday life in many parts of the People’s Republic of China. It has ancient Chinese origins dating back more than 2,000 years, there is even a national public holiday on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, dedicated to Duanwu or Duen Ng (Tuen Ng in Hong Kong).

In October, Dragon Boat racing came home in breath-taking fashion. Dianchi Lake, to the south-west of Kunming City, played host to the 13th IDBF World Nations Dragon Boat Championships. Twenty-four countries were represented, including a British squad of almost 70 paddlers, half of which are based in Hong Kong. It was an experiment dreamt up four years earlier by head coach Tim Smith, where UK-based paddlers and paddlers from Hong Kong were merged to form what was the strongest squad Team GB had ever fielded.

Dragon Boat clubs from all over Hong Kong were represented in the GB squad including our very own Lantau Boat Club. Paddlers Chris Johns and Leam Murphy flew the LBC flag at the World Championships for the first time, and after months of training, many hours in the gym and out on the water, it came down to five intense days of racing against the top crews in the world.

The event kicked off with the official opening ceremony which was held at the race site along the lake side at the north end of Dianchi Lake. This was an opportunity to see hundreds of paddlers from all over the world in their full colours as well as a stunning display from local performers – dancers, musicians and singers – as the head of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) officially opened the Championships.

Racing began on Wednesday, October 18 with the 2,000m races – two laps around the 500m course, involving three turns and a staggered start of 15 second intervals between each crew. Small boats (10 paddlers) and standard boats (20 paddlers) were in action for the longest race distance of the Championships with places based on timed runs. First up was the GB mixed small boat crew up against tough completion in the form of China and Myanmar. A time of 10 minutes 25 seconds for GB was good enough for 4th place behind Canada in 3rd, China in 2nd and Myanmar – the Champions. Great Britain’s first race of the competition and already the best result at any competition on the world stage.

The Mixed standard boat crew were next and finished their race in a time of 9 minutes 40 seconds, 6th place with the USA taking the gold medal. The men and women crews were racing next in the afternoon.  The Men small boat finished in 8th place with a time of 10 minutes 28 seconds, and Men standard boat finished in 6th place with a time 9 minutes 32 seconds. The Women standard boat matched the 4th place gained by the mixed team earlier in the day with a great time of 10 minutes 17 seconds behind only to the USA, Canada and China. Incredible stuff on day 1 of the Championships for Great Britain!

Thursday’s races were 1,000m straight runs for the standard boat crews (small boats were not in action) and involved heats, semi-finals and finals or minor finals (depending on placings). This meant a tiring day with a lot of races for some members of the crew over long distances. The Mixed standard boat crew were up against it and only managed to place in the minor final. And because of the numbers of crews in this draw, only GB were racing in the minor final, with organisers allowing the ‘race’ to go ahead, bizarrely enough. Being good sports, Team GB put on a show and completed the race course alone, much to the delight of the local spectators!

The men standard boat also placed in the minor final for the 1,000m and finished 3rd in that race. The women went one better in their semi-final, placing in the Grand Final. But again the world-class competition was too tough and 5th place was secured – a fantastic result.

Friday morning saw the first installment of the 500m sprint races for the mixed crews. GB fielded a small boat mixed crew and a standard boat mixed crew. The standard boat finished 4th in their heat and 3rd in their semi-final which meant a place in the minor final. It was a close race against crews from Macau, Switzerland and Japan, but GB only managed 3rd place, 9th overall. The small boat crew performed well in their heat coming in 2nd place ahead of the Canadians and an automatic place in the Grand Final. A great achievement! So with one less race to do, GB small boat mixed were fresh for the Grand Final, and finished in 5th place overall beating Singapore to the line with the Thais taking the gold medal, Myanmar the silver and China the bronze.

All the day’s racing was complete by Friday lunchtime, allowing paddlers to rest up, enjoy the surrounding areas and prepare for the following day of excitement on the water.

Saturday was the busiest of the five days, with the 200m races – a total of 89 short, quick-fire races meant a rapid turnaround for the crews in the mixed (morning), open and women (afternoon) categories in the small and standard boats. The mixed standard and small boat crews were up first. Both crews finished in 3rd place in their respective heats, and 2nd place in their semi-final races. But because of the different number of crews in each category, the mixed standard crew only secured a minor final place, whereas the mixed small boat made it to another Grand Final! A 2nd place in the minor final for the mixed standard boat was secured finishing behind Macau – 8th overall. For the small boat mixed crew, a close race was fought along the short 200m course. Only 3.5 seconds separated 1st and 6th places. Team GB were just pipped to the line by Singapore and Canada and 6th place was confirmed, with the Thais taking the gold medal.

The men small and standard boats only secured places in the minor finals and finished 2nd and 5th respectively in those races. The women on the other hand performed outstandingly in their initial races and secured a place in the Grand Final over a short distance normally suited to the Asian teams. As the women lined up alongside China, Canada and the USA, adrenaline was running high and finish line was in sight for what proved to be a thrilling final. Less than 2 seconds separating the four teams, Team GB Women secured a bronze medal ahead of the experienced Americans, with Canada taking the silver and China the gold. An amazing achievement for Team GB – the first ever medal in the Premier category for any British squad!

Sunday, October 22 was the final day of racing, with the 500m, open and women categories. Riding on the high of the previous day’s bronze medal, GB women were hoping for more success in the standard boat. With a second place in their heat, behind Canada, and second again in their semi-final behind the hosts, China, the GB women had secured a Grand Final place on the last day of competition! Buoyed by the performances earlier in the day and their medal the day before, the women were confident going into a race with three of the top crews in the world – USA, Canada and China. It proved all too much however, two seconds off the pace and a 4th place confirmed for GB women – who can now hold their heads up after five days of superb racing against the best in the world!

The men’s small boat crew were also in action, but their placings earlier in the day meant a slot in the minor final. 6th place in this race was confirmed. The men’s standard boat fared better with a 3rd place in their heat, behind China and Thailand, and then a 2nd place in the semi-final behind the Czech Republic. So a Grand Final place was confirmed and, like the women, lined up at the end of the day for the blue ribbon event – the 500m Final at the World Championships. Lining up against the likes of China, Thailand and Canada – it was going to be very difficult, and so it was. 6th place was confirmed and within 2 seconds off the pace, it was a great performance after a long week of racing.

The closing ceremony on Sunday night was a fitting end to a spectacular week of racing. Teams and supporters were treated to a dazzling spectacle of colour, light, dance and music at the nearby Exhibition Hall.

Team GB had never come away from the World Championships with a medal in previous campaigns. A stellar performance from the British ladies, as well as several grand finals for all categories meant this was the most successful Championships for Great Britain. An ambitious experiment of blending two halves of a squad separated by over 9,500 km had paid off handsomely. Discussions are already underway about regrouping and forming more squads for future campaigns such as the European Championships in 2018 and the next World Championships in 2019.

Full race results of all five days of racing in Kunming can be found at the following link:

– Leam Murphy