Paddler’s Handbook


This handbook is a basic guide to dragon boat paddling for members and prospective members. We believe it’s our job is to help you enjoy the sport by explaining what River Spirit does throughout the paddling season. First of all, we want to provide a safe, fun and supportive environment for you to do your best regardless of your experience.  We are committed to being respectful, accepting and encouraging towards all our paddlers. And similarly, we’d ask you to acknowledge and congratulate others when they do well and appreciate the support and opportunities the club provides. But in the end we are only the facilitators, because success in the sport can only be defined by you the paddler.

Nick Hindle Team Coach

River Spirit (formed in 2003) is a women’s dragon boat team that trains two, sometimes three times a week on the Campbell River Estuary.

  • Regular Practices: The training season runs from late February to early November and the practice sessions are, for the most part, structured to prepare for the dragon boat competitions held from late spring to the early fall on Vancouver Island.

Dragon Boat Paddling: Dragon boating appeals to paddlers of all ages, it’s one of the easiest sports to get into, and requires no special skill.

  • Age Groups: Membership is open to all adult women. River Spirit has 70+ year-old veteran paddlers who still enjoy the sport and do well in competitions.
  • Skill Required: From day one new paddlers are shown good technique by pairing them with experienced dragon boaters.  The whole team supports one another and no one needs to worry about getting left behind.
  • Fitness Benefits: Paddling dragon boat provides a total-body workout; builds strength; and, more importantly, has little impact on the joints.
  • Paddling Well: Paddling efficiently takes practice. Nine times out of ten the team that makes paddling look effortless by using a continuous, fluid motion wins the race.
  • Teamwork: Teamwork is number one. There are no MVP awards. River Spirit believes the teams that win races are always comprised of paddlers willing to work together for a common goal.

Practices – Where and When

  • Location: River Spirit paddles at the Campbell River Estuary leaving from the Tyee Dock in the early season and then from the Freshwater Marina for the remainder.
  • Directions: Tyee Dock: Take the North Island Highway and turn right on Spit Road follow down to the parking lot on the left hand side. To Fresh Water Marina: From the North Island Highway turn right on Baikie Rd. (by the Honda dealer) then make an immediate right turn down into the marina parking lot. Please park your vehicle either on the grass besides the parking lot or behind the marina office. The Freshwater Marina is a working dock, the space to moor the River Spirit boats is donated, and it would be unseemly for us to interfere with their daily business.
  • Practice Times: Please be punctual. Resetting bench orders at the last minute can be tricky.
    • Regular practices are Tuesday evenings, meet at 5:00 pm, on the water by 5:30; Saturday mornings, meet at 8:30 am and on the water by 9:00.
    • Thursday Practices: These are usually reserved for the paddlers going to an upcoming race. Usually the same time as Tuesday practices.
    • Practice Duration: Practices last between an hour and 75 minutes.
    • Rescheduling Practices: Practices are rescheduled if the tide is too low – below 6 ft.  Team members are always notified in good time.

Communication: River Spirit uses Team Cowboy as its primary method of communication.Once on the team, the captain will pass along instructions on how to access.

PFDs, Clothing & Paddles

  • PFDs: River Spirit provides each member with a high quality, Transport Canada certified life jacket. They must be worn at all times while out on the water. No exceptions. Ensure yours fit properly and please take care of it.
    • Proper Fit: Hold your arms straight up over your head and have a friend gently pull up on the tops of the arm openings. If the jacket rides up over your face or chin, it’s too large. Try a smaller size.
    • Other Types of PFD: Dragon Boat Canada says to avoid using self-inflating and belt-pack PFDs, even for practice sessions.
  • Clothing:  Other than a PFD there’s no special clothing required. Dress for the season and the weather and wear clothes that allow movement and that breathe. Please remember, dragon boat is a water sport. You may get splashed. So if you are at all concerned about getting wet, it’s best to have a change of clothes in the car.
    • Gloves: There’s no hard and fast rule. Many paddlers use gloves all the time, even in summer; others find them irritating and a hindrance to good paddling. It’s a personal thing.
    • Uniforms: During competition, either at a dragon boat festival or one-day regatta, all paddlers must wear the team uniform which is a short sleeved team T-shirt and black pants..
  • Paddles: The club provides each paddler with an IDBF standard wooden paddle.  Many members prefer to buy their own carbon-fibre paddle. Although these are much lighter, they are expensive and can be difficult to repair.
    • Paddle Specs:   All dragon boat paddles must meet IDBF paddle specs.  They can be made of wood or carbon fibre (no restriction on weight) but must be between 45 and 51 inches in length.
    • Paddle Sizing:   The coach will fit each paddler with a paddle of the correct length. Taller paddlers generally need a longer paddle, but not always. 47 inches is the most common size on River Spirit. Avoid using a paddle that’s too long; it may cause shoulder injuries.
    • Paddle Maintenance: Tape the paddle shaft if you wish. Check the ‘T ‘grip periodically, it can come loose. Look for blemishes on the paddle’s varnish. If water gets into the wood it will weaken the paddle.

Safety: The club’s first priority is to ensure the safety of all its paddlers. Motorized vessels use the Campbell River Estuary so it’s important to be observant, listen to the tiller and follow his instructions, and, most importantly, apply basic common sense at all times.

  • Safety Equipment: Both River Spirit boats have safety ladders, first-aid bags, and bailers. One boat has a VF Radio.
  • Boat Loading: Be careful as you go down to the boat. The ramp down to the dock and the dock can be slippery. When loading and unloading the boat, help your partner in and out of the boat by grasping her forearm.  Please keep the dock clear of paddles and equipment to avoid accidents.
  • Health issues: Any member suffering from a health issue or an allergy should advise the captain. E.G. if a paddler is diabetic or allergic to bee stings.
  • Weather Conditions:  If high winds are forecast the coach may decide to cancel the practice. You’ll be informed by phone or email in good time. If there’s an electrical storm, the boat will come off the water immediately.
  • Using the VF Radio:The radio should be kept fully charged and always left switched to VHF channel 16. In an emergency, send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message.
    • General Rules: Send a Mayday voice message only if the situation is serious, for example someone’s life is at risk. If it’s urgent, but not life-threatening, for example the boat has been holed, you can’t get into shore, but everyone is OK, send a Pan-Pan message.
    • Mayday: Say slowly and clearly: ”Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the River Spirit Dragon Boat” [repeat three times]. Say where you are, state the nature of distress and say why immediate assistance is required. Tell them how many people are affected and give them any other relevant information.
    • Pan-Pan: Say slowly and clearly: “Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan”  This is the River Spirit Dragon Boat Say where you are and state the nature of the situation, e.g. “our boat is holed, we are having some difficulty getting to shore, but otherwise, everyone is OK”

Boat Commands: For getting the boat under way and keeping safe on the water it is essential for paddlers to know following commands. In nearly all cases these are issued by the Tiller.

  • Back Paddle: Paddle strokes used to move the boat backwards.  The back stroke is initiated by reaching slightly behind and pushing the paddle blade forward. Paddlers should look ahead and keep time as they back paddle.
  • Brace the boat (Feather the Boat): Used to stabilize the boat when people are moving seats.  The paddles are extended to the side of the boat and the blades are held flat on top of the water to absorb any boat rock.
  • Draw or Draw Stroke: Used when it’s necessary to move the boat sideways.  The paddler reaches out perpendicular to the hull and pulls water toward and under the boat. Draw strokes may be used to turn the boat by using four front and back paddlers on opposite sides. For example, “Front left and back right, draw”.
  • Hold the Boat:  Stop the boat and then keep it from moving. Paddlers bury their paddle blades vertically to create resistance and slow down the boat.
    • Hold for Drift – Stop the boat moving sideways. Place the  paddle fully in the water keeping the blade parallel to the side of the boat
    • Hold Hard:  Stop the boat quickly. Instead of just holding the boat, paddlers apply substantial forward force against the paddle blades to bring the boat to a fast stop.
  • Let it Run (Let it Ride): Cease paddling and let the paddle rest on the gunnel. Let the boat continue to glide (run) even though paddling has stopped.
  • Paddles Up:  Get ready to paddle.  Raise your paddle as though about to take a stroke and then on the command Take it Away begin to paddle.
  • Push Off: Command given to one side of the boat to push away from the dock and get the boat under way.
  • Ready (Paddlers are you Ready?): Command used after the boats are aligned at the start of a race. If a team is not ready the caller will raise a hand. If all teams are ready for the start, the starter continues the start sequence to begin the race.
  • Start Commands:  The commands the starter uses at the beginning of a race. Once the boats are aligned the Starter will say the following: “Paddlers are you ready?”  “Attention Please” then sound a horn or say the word “GO”.
  • Take it away:  Start paddling.  Usually preceded by “Paddles Up”.

Who’s In Charge of the Boat: First time paddlers may wonder who’s in charge of what. Is it the Coach, Captain, Tiller, or the Caller? Here’s a snapshot:

  • Captain & Assistant Captain: Responsible for the team’s well being. Establishes team roster. Welcomes new paddlers. Role model for team. Works closely with the coaches. In her absence, the captain’s role will usually be assumed by the tiller or caller. The captain is the only voice for the boat when talking with race officials.
  • Coach:  Teaches the team how to improve. Sets bench order. Works out practice details. Motivates team. Promotes an atmosphere of friendship between all team members. Demonstrates good technique.
  • Tiller:  Responsible for the control and safety of the boat at all times.  In charge of the boat when leaving the dock, when under way, and when returning. Avoids marine obstructions, hazards and other dangerous situations.
  • Caller (Drummer): Motivates the team during a race. Discusses race tactics with the coach and captain before a race. May use the drum as she sees fit. Her role is somewhat similar to that of a rowing cox.

Boat Set Up & Bench Order: Teams usually race with twenty paddlers. Benches are numbered from the front to back starting at one and ending at ten. Both River Spirit boats are 6/16s equipped with an extra bench in the bow and in the stern.

  • Weight Distribution:   Front to back and side to side weight distribution must be taken into account when setting up the boat. The tiller must know how to move paddlers to improve boat balance. Having a boat off balance can seriously affect how it tracks and glides.
  • Typical Set Up: The boat crew is broken into three sections. Fronts, the first six paddlers; Engine Room, the middle eight paddlers; and the Backs, the last six paddlers.
    • Fronts (including Lead Strokes):  Paddlers with good timing and good reach. The rest of the boat takes its cue from the fronts, so they set the pace while paddling.
    • Engine Room:  Usually reserved for bigger, stronger paddlers. Although the lead strokes set the pace, it’s the engine room paddlers who determine the pace. Too fast, and the bigger engine room paddlers can no longer twist and reach. If the caller sees the engine room paddlers start shortening up on their reach, she should tell the strokes to bring the rate down.
    • Backs: The best technical paddlers are at the back of the boat; because it’s there the water moves the most. Although it’s common for novice teams to put beginners at the back because they fear timing issues, this practice should be avoided. It’s better to put a novice farther up the boat with an experienced paddler. She’ll learn quicker that way.

Paddling Basics: A detailed discussion of paddling technique is well beyond the scope of this handbook. It’s mostly a learn-by-doing sort of thing anyway. But here are a few essentials to keep in mind:  Please review all the notes from the coaching clinic

  •  Get Comfortable in the Boat: Keep the outside hips to the gunnel. Find a good spot for your feet. You’ll be pushing through the legs and engaging the core with each stroke to get the boat moving quickly.
  • Hold the Paddle Correctly: Wrap your top hand around the ‘T’ grip with the thumb underneath. The bottom hand is usually kept about a hands width up on the shaft. The paddle should feel easy in the hands.
  • Paddle Efficiently: There should be no wasted motion. Think of all your paddling happening on the outside of the boat. Your top arm is always over the paddle as you pull through the stroke and it should stay there even on the exit. Find a good rhythm. Paddle elegantly.
  • Reach Out: Lead with the bottom arm. The amount of available reach may depend on your bench position, but you should always have enough space to reach out under paddle of the person in front of you.
  • Clean Entry: Make every stroke with as little splash as possible. If the paddle is ‘plunking’, you are probably over-reaching.
  • Pressure on the Blade: Make sure the paddle blade is fully buried and get the feel of constant pressure throughout the stroke.
  • Clean Exit: Get the paddle out of the water quickly and cleanly. Never let your paddle hang at the back of the stroke. The paddler behind you needs space to move her paddle forward.
  • Keep Good Time: There’s nothing more frustrating than clacking paddles. Look up the boat at all times. Visualize the paddles going in together and out together.
  • Relax and Keep Strong:  As you paddle think of a bungee cord attached to your navel and forehead. This will remind you to keep the body open and strong. The power is coming from the core: the arms play only a supporting role.

Training Plan for the Season: To an extent the training plan the coaches set will depend on the club’s goals for the season. That is to say, which festivals are ‘competitive’ and which are ‘for fun’. Either way, the training plan will be along these lines:

  • Aerobic Base Work – Start of Season (March – Beginning of April. Low intensity, long duration work pieces to build endurance. Best environment for working on technique and introducing new paddlers to the sport.
  • Mid-intensity Base Work – Second month of training (End of April, May) Work on technique at a moderate speed. Tougher workouts. The pieces are typically longer than race distance and should create some fatigue.
  • Work at Race Pace Intensity – Close to first race of the season (Starting at the end of May) Pieces shorter than race distance done at higher intensity. Goal is to teach paddlers to maintain good form at a high pace. Race starts and finishes are integrated into these practices.

Festivals and Regattas: These are the dragon boat races held throughout the paddling season. The shortest are the 250 metre sprint regattas; most of the larger festivals use a 500 metre race format. Race the River held sometime in June (depending on tides) here in Campbell River and is 350 metres.

  • Eligibility: Any River Spirit member can enroll for a regatta or festival.
  • Expectations: After her name goes on the roster, she’ll be expected to commit to the training schedule set out by the coaches. Depending on the event, the training may be moderate or rigorous.
  • Roster: Most race organizers limit the number of paddlers on a team to 24. If an event is oversubscribed, the coaches will use the fairest means possible to determine who’s on the team.