The racing dragon

Dating back nearly 2000 years, the ancient Chinese tradition of Dragon Boat Racing was originally a celebration that fell on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month as a gesture to please the Gods and bring forth necessary rains to cultivate the lands. Now the CERN Canoe and Kayak Club, too, participates in this tradition, though not so much to please the Gods on the ritualistic date, but to bring forth giant smiles on the faces of members.

Dragon Boat Racing has been rising steadily in popularity in Europe since the mid nineties and with the great potential to host and promote Dragon Boat Racing in the Geneva area, the CERN Canoe and Kayak Club, has taken the initiative to bring the sport to the region.

Some members of the Club traveled to Dole in June to participate in the Festival Dragon Boat 2009. Under perfect sunny conditions, the team triumphed in their first ever tournament, cruising to a convincing first place overall finish.

The team of 22, of which 20 paddle, one drums and one steers (Helm), consisted of club members, their children, a few friends and other family members. "It’s quite an amazing feeling when you get the boat taking off," describes Catharine Noble, trainer for the Canoe and Kayak club, and co-founder of the Dragon Boat initiative. "We did a practice start with our team as it was the first time they had been in the boat. I explained 10 paddle strokes at a certain rhythm and… GO! The boat, it just took off, it felt like we were flying. When we stopped, everyone was in awe, breathing, ‘WOW! Can we do that again!?’"

With the successful first weekend, the club is looking to purchase their first boat. The boats used in this area are generally German made with drums imported from Hong Kong. The dragons found at the bows of each boat (where the name originates), are shaped and coloured differently, conveying a unique look and mood. The CERN boat will be used predominantly by the club, but it will also be available for use across CERN and by businesses in the area. With a BBQ often complementing a day on the water, Dragon Boat Racing is a fantastic way to bond with a group. "If you don’t know half your team members before you start, you will by the end of the day," laughs Catharine. "It brings people together."

Next up for the club is the Paddle for Cancer. It is a charitable race that falls on the 6th of September. Boats are provided by the organization and the CERN club is looking to enter three ‘open’ crews - two mixed teams and one all-female team (21 in each boat). Places are open to anyone - CERN employees or not, friends and families. The goal is to raise 2000 Swiss-Francs per boat, totaling 6000 Swiss-Francs for the three CERN boats, to be donated to cancer research.

Contact Catharine Noble for race details, how to join and for further information regarding the club at

Club website

Did you know?


Dragon Boat Racing is amongst the oldest recognized sports. The racing dates back 2000 years as a ritualistic celebration meant as a gesture to the Gods. During the mid seventies, Dragon Boat Racing emerged from China and became recognized as an official sport.

The dragon holds important historical significance. The dragon is the only mythical animal amongst the 12 in the Chinese Zodiac. Dragons were thought to be the rulers of rivers and seas, as well as the clouds and the rainfall. Sacrifices during ancient races were common and racing teams used violent tactics to help lead them to victory. Throwing stones and beating opposing crew members with bamboo were actions recognized as part of the sport. Those who fell into the rivers were unassisted, as their fate was believed to be in the hands of the Dragon Deity and their deaths were interpreted as sacrifice… though this is thankfully no longer practised!

The Boats

The boats are tended by 20 paddlers, one Helm and one drummer who sits facing the paddlers at the bow. With each paddle stroke, the drummer madly strikes at a large traditional drum and shouts encouragement, keeping the team in rhythm.

The traditional drum is usually imported from within China in order to maintain tradition. As the dragon is an essential part of the boat, they are highly personalized and vary from one bow to the next. Though fibreglass boats are becoming more common amongst elite level racing teams, wooden boats are traditionally and still widely used. Although boats are still made using ancient methods in China, the cost of shipping such a boat is astronomical. Germany has become a large provider throughout Europe and provides reliable, traditional boats. A large number of boats also come directly from professional teams. They generally get one use out of their boats and then distribute them throughout the rest of the Dragon Boat community. Boat costs vary, but are generally in the range of 10k to 15k CHF for a new boat.